At the end of last month, Nonesuch Records released its latest album of the music of John Adams, the first since the release of the GRAMMY-winning City Noir album in May of 2014. The new album consists of only one composition, “Scheherazade.2;” and, like its predecessor, it features the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson, this time with violin soloist Leila Josefowicz. Adams calls “Scheherazade.2” a “dramatic symphony,” acknowledging that term originated with Hector Berlioz, who used it to describe both his 1830 Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique” and his 1834 Opus 16 “Harold en Italie” (Harold in Italy), the latter of which included an extensive part for solo viola. “Scheherazade.2” shares the four-movement structure of Opus 16; but Adams’ solo instrument is a violin.
Adams also described his piece as “a virtuoso romantic symphony-concerto on the grand scale which acknowledges its predecessors in works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Berg.” Often, what is left unsaid tells us more than what is actually said; and there is definitely a fascinating omission in that enumeration of composers. There is a good chance that most readers do not have to be told who is missing; but, for the record, the “absent composer” is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who Opus 35 remains one of the most popular works as both a symphony-concerto and a dramatic symphony and whose title, “Scheherazade,” would appear to be the justification for Adams postfixing that digit to his title.
To be fair, it is unlikely that much, if anything, on this new album is likely to remind the attentive listener of any of the composers enumerated above, certainly not to the extent that, for example the ghost of Ludwig van Beethoven haunts earlier Adams compositions, such as “Grand Pianola Music” and “Absolute Jest.” However, there is a certain irony in how “Scheherazade.2” might lead such listeners to establish a less elitist view, if not a deeper appreciation, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Opus 35, which tends to be dismissed as pretty tunes and splashy orchestral colors. This comes down to just who Scheherazade was and why her memory deserves to be sustained through music.
For those who do not already know, Scheherazade was the great (and probably fictitious) storyteller, who kept herself alive as a ruler’s concubine by inventing a new tale every night for 1001 nights, stories that were compiled and documented during the Islamic Golden Age and first published in the English language in 1706 under the title Arabian Nights. What is interesting about Opus 35 is how Rimsky-Korsakov managed to capture not only four of those stories (one for each movement of his concerto-symphony) but also the voice of the storyteller herself. Indeed, that is why he added the solo violin part; and, behind all of its razzle-dazzle, Opus 35 emerges as an ingenious embodiment of not only the tales but also the teller of those tales.
It was not Adams intention to undertake a similar embodiment. Like Rimsky-Korsakov, Adams introduced a solo violin part to stand for the title character; but Adams’ Scheherazade is an “empowered, liberated spirit embodied in the multifaceted solo violin role.” While I am not quite sure about that adjective “multifaceted,” I can certainly buy into all the rest. I would also accept that a woman clever enough to make up such engaging stories with what appears to be so much facility must deal with large sectors of our “modern world’s” population that would view her as a danger and would not hesitate to confront that danger with acts of violence. Thus, Adams’ Scheherazade is more than Rimsky-Korsakov’s storyteller; she is a woman whose skills put her very life at risk. In contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “program,” “Scheherazade.2” follows its protagonist into that brutal world, seeing her plight through to a final movement entitled “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary.”
To be fair, I have to say that, after listening to the new Nonesuch recording only a few times, I cannot say that I really “get” the narrative implied by the titles that Adams has attached to the four movements of his symphony-concerto. On the other hand Rimsky-Korsakov had the advantage that he could fall back on more familiar tropes. Nevertheless, what does register is the extent to which Josefowicz’ performance of the solo violin part can bring out so much of both the brilliance and the peril of Scheherazade’s character. In that respect I feel well-prepared to listen to this music being performed when Josefowicz will visit the San Francisco Symphony this coming February and perform “Scheherazade.2” under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas (presumably with Berkeley-resident Adams in the audience).