Classical music

John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 reimagines the heroine of the Arabian Nights

The American composer’s symphonic piece makes its Asia-Pacific debut this week with the incredible Leila Josefowicz as solo violinist

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 8:41am

A violin concerto may seem an unlikely forum to reflect on injustice to women, but American composer John Adams’ new piece, Scheherazade.2, is just that: a rethinking of the Arabian Nights story with the heroine as a feisty, powerful woman.

The piece, which receives its Asia-Pacific premiere on March 2 at the Sydney Opera House, will be performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Robertson, featuring celebrated violinist Leila Josefowicz as soloist, someone known for her passionately committed playing.

After it was first performed last March by the New York Philharmonic, Josefowicz, who has been associated with Adams for many years, was praised by critics for her powerful rendition. “Ms Josefowicz, playing this formidable violin part from memory, gave a stunning performance, by turns commanding and vulnerable, slashing and sensual. The ovation was tremendous,” wrote Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times.

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When asked to describe the piece, the 38-year-old violinist tells the South China Morning Post, “There is no piece in the violin literature that has this scope of theatric power. If you were to have a one-heroine opera, that’s what this would be.”

To prepare, she explains, “I spent many, many months studying strong women characters. I thought about Joan of Arc, I thought about Catherine the Great, Elizabeth the First, I thought about the fictitious character Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Katniss Everdeen [from The Hunger Games].

“I really took this on as a role, not just a piece of music to play, basically going to very dark places myself.”

Scheherazade.2 was jointly commissioned by three orchestras: the New York Philharmonic, which played the world premiere; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, of Amsterdam; and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The work is expected to be performed by orchestras in Los Angeles, Vienna, Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, London, Helsinki and Berlin in the future.

Adams, who along with Philip Glass and Steve Reich was an early minimalist, is now one of the world’s most influential and widely performed composers, if sometimes controversial for his music’s political overtones.

The playful suffix “.2” belies the serious nature of this 48-minute work, subtitled “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra”. The titles of the four movements – I. Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers, II. A Long Desire (Love Scene), III. Scheherazade and the Men with Beards, IV. Escape, Flight, Sanctuary – suggest a dark scenario.

Robertson, artistic head of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, says the piece is also a challenge for the conductor. “It lies very well for the orchestra because John is a brilliant composer for the orchestra. But it is very hard. I am glad that I have many years of experience behind me because otherwise I think I would be terrified.”

Adams himself is a busy conductor, but Robertson claims that a composer can be distracted by his own work. “[Composers] may be able to drive the sports car beautifully, but they have a different experience when they sit in the passenger seat and don’t have to keep their eyes on the road. When we were recording the City Noir in St Louis, up in the recording studio the composer [Adams] was dancing around with the headphones on like some kind of teenage rocker. You [the conductor] are able to bring out things in the score that the composer has put in the score, but as an interpreter may not be aware of in the same way.”

The violin is ideal for embodying Scheherazade. Robertson says that when the violin is lyrical and sensual, people tend to associate that immediately with feminine qualities. “I heard a male violinist ask John, if he wore a wig, would he be able to play the piece? Because it seems so much a piece for a female violinist. But I am sure it would be able to be enjoyed by any violinist who’s got the chops.”

Speaking about the piece as a commentary on oppression, Robertson says, “We humans tend to band together in ways that are quite tribal and somebody who doesn’t follow the exact rules of the tribe will get in trouble, and in this case it’s Scheherazade,” referring to the storyteller in the Arabian Nights

“But it could easily be someone in another culture. And this is a human constant, I’m afraid. You may not be able to silence the hatred, but if your sanctuary is able to take hatred into its opposite, that seems like the kind of place to escape to. That’s where the ethereal beauty at the end of Scheherazade.2 is really pushing us to go.”

As the soloist, Josefowicz says when she is performing the piece, she doesn’t think of what she is playing as notes “but as language that’s spoken through vibrations and playing on the instrument. It’s a wonderful feeling as I’m getting ready to play, to [say to myself] ‘tell the story’.”