John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, with violinist Leila Josefowicz. Alan Gilbert conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thursday, March 1.
She played it from memory. Of the many striking things about John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, which was finally brought to the Symphony Hall stage Thursday evening, it was that violinist Leila Josefowicz played without the score.
The memorizing always astounds; I know it’s not that important, at least musicians are sanguine about it. But in this case—memorizing not only the solo part, but the complex web of orchestral interaction that encircles, swallows and parries with that solo part—it shows how much Josefowicz owns this piece.
The concerto—is it? Or has Adams created a new form, a dramatic, single voice versus ensemble form?—will need other brave soloists to take up its cause. It has one already; it needs more. We need to see this challenging, emotional, confrontational work enter the regular repertory rotation. We need to hear it. We need to feel it. And experience it.
It’s long. It’s loud—too loud, in parts. It has angry, explicit programmatic ideas that certainly fill up the paragraphs of program notes, and make the soloist pre-approved for sympathy before a single note gets plays.
It’s the music that matters. An aggressive first movement (of four) sets the tone. It rocks. The solo part is breathtakingly difficult—high up in the instrument, unique pitch sets throughout. The structure has none of the minimalist style that Adams sometimes investigates: Scheherazade.2 pits confrontation mob—the orchestra—against a woman—soloist.
Hammered cimbalon (Chester Englander, seated prominently along the first ranks at center-stage) creates unanticipated sonic background, but the soloist speaks loudest and most forcefully. Then surprisingly sits out, many minutes, as a second, slower movement—a love scene—unfolds. This sounds more like the Adams of Shaker Loops, but only tangentially so. The third movement—designated by Adams as a judgment and condemnation scene, a scherzo with emphatic engagement replacing humor—has the soloist weaving an entirely different line that the orchestra. Both are ferocious. Train-like blasts punctuate the finale, which ends anomalously, quietly, with introspection achieved at the conclusion.
Josefowicz premiered Scheherazade.2 almost exactly three years ago, with Gilbert in New York. It was a co-commission that also included David Robertson’s Sydney Symphony, and she recorded the work with Robertson and his St. Louis Symphony (Nonesuch; it was a Grammy nomination).
Programmatically, Adams sees Scheherazade in modern terms: not as the clever survivor, but a suffering women. He turns Rimsky-Korsakov upside down: the original Scheherazade depicts its hero with occasional solos, but mainly as a single motif, high up on the violin, more of a idea than an individual (played beautifully in 2015, with Malcolm Lowe realizing the part, under the baton of Ken-David Masur).
This Scheherazade speaks her mind. Will another violinist take up the work in our lifetime? I’m skeptical, but hope to be proved wrong. Until then, it belongs to the estimable Josefowicz.
Gilbert’s rare appearance in Symphony Hall—now that he’s left New York, perhaps that will change—showed his personality, for certain. He opened with Sibelius’s tone poem “En Saga,” articulate and detailed. A lovely, dynamic work with range, and extended solos—violist Steven Ansell, clarinetist William Hudgins—and quartets—from the first four violin chairs: Lowe, Alexander Velinzon, Elita Kang and Lucy Lin.
A chaotic reading of Debussy’s “Jeux”—conducted with all the same detail, but with much less pleasing results—showed that sometimes a conductor’s conception of the work has integrity, but just doesn’t translate.
This set of performances concludes this evening. bso.org; 617-266-1200