Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave its first performance of John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2” Adams wrote this piece in 2014 on a joint commission by the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonic had the honor of presenting the world premiere with violinist Leila Josefowicz as soloist and Alan Gilbert conducting. This past September Nonesuch Records released the first recording of the piece with Josefowicz performing the the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson.
Adams was present at Davies last night for both a pre-concert discussion and then to address the full audience before the performance began. (“Scheherazade.2” was the only piece on the first half of last night’s program.) On both of those occasions, he chose to make a passing reference to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov having “sleepwalked” through the tales in Arabian Nights while composing his Opus 35, which he titled “Scheherazade.” Opus 35 amounted to a dramatic symphony (to use the terminology of Hector Berlioz) and a symphony-concerto. Adams also used the descriptive phrase “dramatic symphony” but clearly wanted to distance himself from Rimsky-Korsakov, which was evident when he described “Scheherazade.2” as “a virtuoso romantic symphony-concerto on the grand scale which acknowledges its predecessors in works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Berg.”
However, as this site observed when discussing the recording, there is a serious flaw in Adams’ perspective of Rimsky-Korsakov. He could have called his Opus 35 Arabian Nights, but there is a very good reason why he did not. Just as Scheherazade herself serves as the connecting thread across the 1001 tales in Arabian Nights, so did Rimsky-Korsakov enlist a solo violin part to serve as the teller of the four tales behind the titles of the four movements of Opus 35. Far from sleepwalking, Rimsky-Korsakov summoned up considerable conscious skill to create a piece of music that managed to embody not only the four tales but also the teller of those tales and her acts of narration. One might even conjecture that his skill in the interleaving of narrative and narration would later be pursued even more adventurously by his best-known pupil, Igor Stravinsky.
None of this seems to have registered with Adams. He transformed Scheherazade from a clever and resourceful concubine, making up stories as if her life depended on it (which it did), into a clever and resourceful contemporary Muslim woman trapped in a social world dominated by male fundamentalists. While this looks good on paper, Adams’ command of instrumental rhetoric never quite rose to realize this goal as a coherent listening experience. Ironically, for all the names of composers that he dropped, there was an unmistakable ambience of the Opus 35 violin concerto written for Jascha Heifetz by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer with a consummate gift for providing a musical setting for many of the great Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties. Korngold’s command of narrative and narration was right up there with Rimsky-Korsakov’s; and, while several of the violin lines had an arching structure that Korngold favored, Adams never quite knew how to handle any deeper foundation for such surface features.
However, if the music has flaws, Josefowicz still deserves more than generous credit for evoking the voice of this latter-day Scheherazade so compellingly. This was more than a matter of technique, which can easily be appreciated on the Nonesuch recording. Rather, it also involved her ability to turn her interpretation of her solo part into a whole-body experience (presumably just as the original Scheherazade could hold her Shah’s attention by using her whole body to relate her tales).
Indeed, Josefowicz’ interpretation was so compelling that one could almost overlook the extent to which MTT never seemed to get his head around how to handle her exchanges with the ensemble. He certainly knew how to cue the outbursts, but it is hard to believe that Adams wanted this piece to be just a shouting match between the soloist and the orchestra. This is one of those very rare occasions when the recording seems to have trumped an actual performance, since Robertson commanded far greater control over how the St. Louis Symphony engaged with Josefowicz.
For the second half of the program, MTT decided to take SFS down memory lane, revisiting selected movements from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 64 score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. MTT’s first recording with SFS was a full CD of such movements, arranged in such as way as to follow the ballet’s narrative thread. This was a shorter collection of those movements, no longer arranged in the order of the narrative.
There was a good deal of sound and fury in the movements MTT selected; and he did not short-change either of those qualities. Indeed, listening to a full-throated account of that music coming from the Davies stage, one could appreciate the virtues of restricting it all to the confines of an orchestra pit for a ballet performance. Modulating the amplitude goes a long way towards placing the narrative of the choreography on a level playing field with the many outbursts one encounters in Prokofiev’s score. MTT, on the other hand, could, and therefore did, “pull out all the stops” (and cranked up the amplifier to 11)! The result was unabashed spectacle that could only be taken on its own terms but probably would have benefitted from a few less of those full-out episodes.