For most music lovers, the word Scheherazade likely conjures the plush orientalism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral tone-poem. John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 (2015) also took inspiration from the Arabian Nights but via an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris that, in the composer’s words, detailed ‘the casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales [and] the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis’.
Adams’s ‘dramatic symphony’ does not tell a particular story but rather ‘follows a set of provocative images’. Adams employs a solo violin to represent the resourceful protagonist, as Rimsky-Korsakov did, though here the part is considerably more elaborate. In fact, Adams’s work was written specifically for violinist Leila Josefowicz and often sounds more like a concerto than a symphony or tone-poem – although it’s quite distinct in style and tone from Adams’s Violin Concerto.
Scheherazade.2 is an expansive, thematically dense and texturally intricate work, and it took me a few listens to begin to grasp its overall structure. Initially, I tried to find my way using the images conjured by the movement titles and the composer’s programme notes, but it wasn’t until I stopped trying to divine an interpretation and simply allowed the music to guide my imagination that it began to pull together. There are exotic elements in the score, certainly (the prominent use of the cimbalom, for example), but these are more for colour than for content. Indeed, there’s an organic quality to the piece’s unfolding that feels closer to Sibelius or early Schoenberg than to Rimsky-Korsakov.
Josefowicz, who has been a champion of the composer’s music for decades, gives a performance here that explains why Adams has such faith in her: suave and sensual, yet assertive and full of longing. The St Louis Symphony play with authority under David Robertson and the recording is beautifully balanced.