Composer and conductor John Adams — who some fans consider the equivalent of a living, breathing, Mozart-level genius — conducts a masterful evening at the Seattle Symphony this weekend.
The chance to hear a great living composer conducting his own music is rarity enough. But the new work John Adams has brought with him is rarer still: a composition created in the here-and-now that shows every sign of becoming part of the canon.
On top of that, the program features violinist Leila Josefowicz in the title role. “Title role” is the appropriate phrase for “Scheherazade. 2,” a “violin concerto that behaves like a dramatic symphony — or maybe it’s the other way around,” as Adams said in his comments introducing the piece during the first half of Thursday night’s concert.
Cast in four movements for solo violin and large orchestra, it’s a monumental score that lasts about 50 minutes. There’s nothing else like it.
Seattle Symphony with John Adams
With violinist Leila Josefowicz. Repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $21-$121 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Its famous predecessor, “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov (programmed for next week’s SSO concerts), takes its premise from the story that frames the “Arabian Nights.” By means of her narrative power, the beautiful Scheherazade beguiles her powerful, bloodthirsty husband, avoiding the vengeful death he plans for each of his wives the day after their wedding night. Scheherazade eventually masters her violent husband through artistic skill — he needs her to live so she can keep telling him cliffhanger stories — and survives.
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Adams was disturbed by the brutality that seems to pass audiences by as they are charmed by yet another run-through of the admittedly seductive score of the original “Scheherazade.” After visiting an exhibit about the history of the “Arabian Nights” in Paris, Adams said he began thinking about “what a Scheherazade in our own time might be.”
“Scheherazade. 2” tells its story completely through musical gestures, but as effectively as a powerfully dramatic opera. Adams does this with the shifting guises of the solo violinist, her actions and reactions, and the gripping sonic environments he surrounds her with.
On a purely visual level, Josefowicz’s facial expressions and body language were as fascinating as those of a brilliant actress or singer whose character has to fight for her life.
And her musicianship is one of a kind — completely in tune with the shifting emotional landscape of Adams’ harmonic musical language, which is complex, but not in the over-intellectualized, 20th-century avant-garde way. Its complexity reflects first and foremost the emotional complexity of the musical content.
Josefowicz brought all these layers to life. Near the end of the third movement — which presents an image of Scheherazade being tried in court by “zealots,” as Adams put it, and contains the piece’s most overtly violent music — she projected a woman almost broken, emitting raspy, frail sounds from her instrument that emphasized her state of shock.
In the ambiguous conclusion of “Scheherazade. 2,” as Josefowicz soared aloft against a soft tintinnabulation of tuned gongs, the profundity of Adams’ music, in all its grimness, hit home.
This is an enormously challenging score for everyone involved, and the SSO played it at the highest level.
In the concert’s second half, Adams navigated the symphony through two more orchestral thickets. A short Elgar march — the little-known “Military March No. 3 in C” — was more jovial than military, but the military power of ancient Rome loomed more ominously than I’ve ever heard it in Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”
On the podium, Adams cuts a svelte figure, precise and disciplined in his gestures, yet he commandeered an awe-inspiring wall of sound — with brass positioned on the first tiers — for the climactic fourth movement, “Pines of the Appian Way.”
But even that felt curiously anticlimactic, after the power of “Scheherazade. 2.” The voice of Scheherazade, of Leila Josefowicz’s violin, resonated past all the martial thunder and glory.