New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – The Enchanted Lake & Petrushka – and world premiere of John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 with Leila Josefowicz

The Enchanted Lake, Op.62
Petrushka [1911 version]
John Adams
Scheherazade.2 – Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra [co-commissioned by New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra: world premiere]

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 26 March, 2015
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan GilbertPhotograph: Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic

How might a contemporary Scheherazade respond to the threat of abuse according to the legend of the Arabian Nights? After all, if a maiden spent but one night with the ruler she was to be executed in the morning! John Adams makes an effort to answer this provocative question in Sheherazade.2. Inspired by an exhibition at the Institute Arabe in Paris, Sheherazade.2 is far from the romantic character immortalized in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite. Adams portrays her as a feminist, full of “grit and personal power”. A victim of male domination and violence, she responds with manipulative argumentation and raging vituperation in an often scathing, ranting solo violin part.

This “Dramatic Symphony” is structured as a series of images in four movements: ‘Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers’; ‘A Long Desire (Love Scene)’; ‘Scheherazade and the Men with Beards (doctrinal disputes—they argue among themselves—the judgment—Scheherazade’s appeal—the condemnation’; and ‘Escape, Flight, Sanctuary’. The music, over forty minutes, has a strong, assertive, sometimes bombastic quality that expresses its accusatory character with uncompromising ferocity. Occasionally there are moments of calm introspection, with subtle hues and prominent use of cimbalom that suggest an exotic quality.

Leila JosefowiczPhotograph: Deborah O'Grady

Adams wrote the violin part for Leila Josefowicz, who performed from memory, with remarkable agility and intensity. She seemed to take her role as accuser very seriously, immersing herself wholeheartedly in passages that virtually screamed with rage, particularly in the outer movements. Even the ‘Love Scene’ of the second movement, despite some exotic sensuality and furtive lyricism, turned bitter, even brazen, as if unable to shake off the memory of the tortures the heroine endured. The scherzo-like third returns to the ravenous violence of the first, punctuated by whip cracks. In response, the violin alternates between gentle pleas for mercy and angry outbursts. Although the finale begins softly, bathed in a rather cold, grayish atmosphere, the tempestuous wrath returns with the soloist’s entrance. Though secure in sanctuary, the torments of earlier suffering are reawakened. Suddenly, Scheherazade breaks off in mid-stream without resolution as the work ends.

In purely musical terms, Adams gives the violin wild figurative passages and whatever lyricism there is. The orchestra serves either to reinforce or stimulate the violin’s condemnation of the violent treatment of women, but its murky coloration fails to generate an especially exotic or evocative ambience.

The concert opened with The Enchanted Lake, by Anatoly Liadov, a student of Rimsky known today primarily for this and two other orchestral works, Kikimora and Baba Yaga, and a few piano pieces, In the current work, billowing strings suggest gently floating waters, glistening flute figures evoke an image of a starry sky, and Scriabinesque melodic figures create a magical impression worthy of the title. The music only rarely gets louder than piano. Gilbert led the Philharmonic in a truly ‘enchanting’ performance.

Stravinsky’s ballet-score for Petrushka (in its original scoring) was given a relatively straightforward reading. Gilbert concentrated on details, particularly in the brass, that sometimes gave a steely quality, but more often enhanced both precision and structural cohesion. Strong dynamic contrasts intensified the performance, but despite delightful woodwind solos and clear textures, Gilbert proved rather weak on eliciting coloristic effects. He did, however, knit the various sections together seamlessly.

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