Ambitious TSO program

It wasn’t at all what I expected, this Toronto Symphony program of Beethoven, Brahms and Adams, to be taken on a Canadian tour this weekend (Ottawa Saturday and Montreal Sunday). Peter Oundjian did tell us that it’s unusual to program the Brahms 4th Symphony before the interval, with the big modern concerto after. That was a clear signal as to their sense of the true highlight of the concert.

If you get a chance to hear John Adams’ Scheherazade 2, especially live, I would encourage you to hear it. Here’s an excerpt from his program notes:

The impetus for the piece was an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris detailing the history of the “Arabian Nights” and of Scheherazade and how this story has evolved over the centuries. The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many off these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis.

The work was composed in 2014 specifically for Leila Josefowicz, who has collaborated with Adams before. As he says in the notes “I find Leila a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess”. The work is subtitled “dramatic symphony for  violin and orchestra”.  Here’s a brief intro to the piece by the composer.

He mentions Romeo et Juliette by Berlioz, which is also a dramatic symphony, and that in his piece the violin is like the protagonist. Curiously he didn’t mention Harold in Italy, a work with several resemblances to Adams’ work, another composition where a single player –this time a viola rather than violin—is like a protagonist surrounded by the orchestra as though representing the milieu.

Like Harold –and also like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade as well—it’s a four movement work:
1. Tale of the Wise Young Woman—Pursuit by the True Believers
2. A Long Desire (love scene)
3. Scheherazade and the Men with Beards
4. Escape, Flight, Sanctuary

And Adams is worthy to be discussed in comparison with those two (Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov): arguably the two greatest orchestrators in the history of the orchestral medium.


Composer John Adams

Yes, you need to hear this work, even if it’s sometimes terrifying. Where Rimsky’s composition is a kind of anthology, mediated by the violin soloist who would be Scheherzade the story-teller, both Berlioz’s Harold and Adams’ latter-day Scheherazade seem to be walking through a pulsating world in each movement, sometimes at odds with or even threatened by that world. But Adams gives us a phenomenal range of timbres. When the violin is playing there are often fewer players engaged, often cut back to the celesta, the cimbalom and vibes, a sensual contrast to some of the threatening sounds arrayed against her (although as a Hungarian I was intrigued by the personal associations of some of Adams’ sounds, a very friendly sort of exotica given that one sometimes hears the cimbalom in Magyar restaurants). In addition, though, the full orchestra showed me several new sounds, even while staying mostly in the tonal realm. Josefowicz is sometimes required to play fast passages of short groups of notes, sometimes longer phrases and occasionally venturing into more lyrical music-making. There’s no mistaking the amorous atmosphere in the second movement. Adams is an atmospheric storyteller to stand alongside his heroine, sometimes immersing the violin in devastating walls of sound that make you fear for the life of the protagonist.

Oundjian’s comments (only offered after the interval as we were about to begin the Adams rather than in the first half) explained a lot that had me mystified up to that point. The thematic links he drew –between the oppression underlying Adams’ Scheherazade 2, in the Egmont Overture, as well as the darker side of the Brahms were crystal clear in the music-making. As this is the first performance of this programme, I hope Oundjian and the TSO can find more balance, because right now the two German works opening the concert,  though played with great precision,  are somewhat two dimensional in their lack of emotional depth. Brahms 4th does end with a powerful dark movement –the movement that worked best for me—but there is sensuality throughout all four movements, a warmer side that wasn’t really allowed to bloom, inner voices that could have been given more space to come out. As the TSO relax and enjoy themselves on this tour I am certain they’ll hit their stride.

This wonderful program will be repeated at Roy Thomson Hall Thursday May 5th, then taken to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Saturday May 7th, and Montreal’s Maison Symphonique May 8th.

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