One of the leading figures in contemporary American music, John Adams comes to conduct the Seattle Symphony and Leila Josefowicz in his dramatic symphony “Scheherazade.2.”
Some people feel like they’ve missed out because Mozart and Beethoven lived in a different century. But they’re overlooking the great artists who are in our midst today — composers writing music that is just as meaningful, and just as likely to last.
Like John Adams. In 2001, Alex Ross — arguably America’s most influential music critic — concluded a New Yorker profile of Adams with the remarkable statement: “It seemed to me that I had just spent the morning with a man who was never going to die.”
But Adams isn’t one to settle for past glory.
John Adams at the Seattle Symphony
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, $21-$121; 7 p.m. Friday, March 18 (“Untuxed”), $17-$74; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
America’s pre-eminent composer is coming to Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) to conduct his latest large-scale opus “Scheherazade.2,” alongside guest violinist Leila Josefowicz.
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The Seattle program will also include one of the lesser-known marches from Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” series and (on March 17 and 19) Ottorini Respighi’s kaleidoscopic “The Pines of Rome” — a veritable case study in state-of-the-art orchestration.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Berkeley, Calif., Adams said he looks forward to working again as a conductor with the Seattle Symphony. “They’re a really wonderful orchestra,” he said, “and deserve more attention on the national level than they are getting — and Benaroya is a good hall.”
This will mark the West Coast premiere of “Scheherazade.2,” what Adams calls a “dramatic symphony” that was spurred by his visit to an exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris exploring the history of the “Arabian Nights.”
Adams’ attention was drawn to the “casual brutality” underlying the Scheherazade legend, the inspiration for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of the same name (and one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory).
Her story frames the massive collection of “Arabian Nights” tales. Scheherazade is newly married to a sultan who vows to have each of his wives slain after their wedding night — his vengeance for having once been deceived by a lover. But she manages to outwit her husband by entrancing him each night with a new story, playing on his curiosity. (The alternate title, “1001 Nights,” is thought to refer to infinity — to the intentional lack of closure that is Scheherazade’s narrative strategy.)
“Every classical music listener is familiar with the outcome, how she survives,” Adams said. “But I wonder how many have stopped to ponder that the story itself is really quite horrifying.”
So he began to imagine what a contemporary Scheherazade might do to cope.
Adams devised a compositional plan in which the solo violin would represent Scheherazade’s character in a series of situations: her pursuit by a group of angry fundamentalists, a love scene, her trial by zealots and an ambiguous final escape.
But Adams expressed frustration with some critics’ tendencies to reduce the music to a simplistic political message. When “Scheherazade.2” was premiered a year ago by the New York Philharmonic, for example, The New York Times published a glowing review, but its headline tagged the work “an answer to male brutality.”
“The headline plucked out just one aspect of the piece,” Adams said.
“Scheherazade.2” is “the closest collaborative undertaking I’ve ever done,” he said, referring to the role violin virtuoso Josefowicz played in inspiring the solo. In the year since she performed in the world premiere, Josefowicz has played “Scheherazade.2” 16 times — last week, she introduced it to Australia.
How does she approach the taxing solo? “I prepared for this as if I am an actor preparing for a very serious role,” Josefowicz wrote via email. “I thought of many strong women throughout the ages, women who have lived in real life as well as fictitious characters. They all gave me inspiration.”
Adams, now 69, started on his musical path with a San Francisco Symphony residency, which culminated in “Harmonielehre” — an orchestral masterpiece from 1985. Adams introduced it to SSO during his last visit here in 2012.
International recognition followed in 1987 with his debut opera “Nixon in China.” Drawing on President Nixon’s breakthrough visit to Beijing in 1972, and cast as a psychological Cold War fantasia, “Nixon” helped spark a still-flourishing renaissance in new American opera.
It also set a pattern for provocation. Adams’ second opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991), dramatized the 1985 hijacking of the “Achille Lauro” cruise ship, during which a 69-year-old Jewish American in a wheelchair was killed and thrown overboard. Though “Nixon” is now widely acknowledged as a landmark, the more emotionally complex “Klinghoffer” still generates intense controversy — the Metropolitan Opera’s 2014 production generated headlines and protests.
Nevertheless, Adams has blazed new trails with a series of ambitious, searching works unparalleled in the history of American music. They reveal a mature artist restlessly challenging the limits of his language — and the limits of musical language itself as Adams grapples with dark, ominous territory: the impulse toward cruelty, violence and destruction.
In his 2005 opera “Doctor Atomic,” Adams turned to one of the most frightening and potent moments in modern history: the test of the first atomic bomb in a New Mexico desert.
His 2001 “El Niño,” a sort of precursor to “Scheherazade.2,” recounts the Nativity story with a fresh emphasis on the experience — including the pain — of motherhood. And one of Adams’ most gripping creations is “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” which reconfigures the Passion of Christ with a focus on the women who were important to Jesus.
“Whenever I read history or myth or even the daily news, I’m very conscious of the voice who is speaking — of whether it’s a man’s version of the story or a woman’s,” Adams said. “And so often, it is a male voice speaking.”
What about the paradox of being a male composer addressing such concerns? “One of the great things about art … is that you can inhabit another sensibility,” he said. “I wanted to take another look at the story of Scheherazade, one that isn’t usually told.”
Josefowicz continues to be inspired by performing this score, as well as Adams’ other music for violin. “It is amazing to live with such a great piece of music,” she wrote. “I love it even more as time passes.”