This weekend’s concert serves up some of the most captivating orchestral writing to date by one of America’s best composers (and musical storytellers).
By Jonathan Blumhofer
If recent history is any guide, pretty much any Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) program that features Alan Gilbert on the podium promises to be a good one. His last two (in 2009 and ’13, respectively) were. And this Thursday night’s dynamic return, featuring music by Sibelius, Debussy, and John Adams, certainly was.
The highlight of evening was the belated local premiere of Adams’ 2014 “dramatic symphony” Scheherazade.2. A powerful, inventive reconsideration of the mythical Arabian storyteller, it casts its soloist-heroine as an archetypal feminist superhero: smart, tough, crafty, and beguiling. And, as realized by violinist Leila Josefowicz on Thursday, invincible.
Adams framed the piece as a commentary on the historic subjugation and oppression of women around the world, particularly in the Middle East but also in the West. His note on the work discusses these themes in some depth and recent developments in the #MeToo movement (among other things) further lend this weekend’s concerts a degree of cultural relevance that you sometimes have to stretch for in classical music.
Still, for all the social awareness that informs Scheherazade.2, it has to rise or fall on the quality of its musical arguments. Happily, those are profoundly convincing.
Lately, Adams’ music tends in one of two principle directions: the Beethoven-influenced (Son of Chamber Symphony, Absolute Jest, Second Quartet) and what we might call the neo-Modernist (City Noir, Gospel According to the Other Mary). Scheherazade.2 falls firmly in the latter camp. Its textures are often dense and packed with activity. The melodic writing – and there’s lots of it – is likewise busy, commonly fragmented and angular in character, but lucid and direct in affect. Throughout, the overt influences of Adams’ singular brand of Minimalism are, in fact, minimal, though pulse and rhythm remain vital components of his style.
Unlike the hyper-melodic solo part in Adams’ 1993 Violin Concerto, the violinist in Scheherazade.2 actually gets some time to breathe. Not much, but enough to let Adams’ total command of the orchestra shine. His scoring runs the gamut from a delicate sort of swirling lyricism for strings and winds that marks parts of the slow movement to seething episodes of beastly violence (ferocious brass yawps, roiling string textures) in the third and much in between. Technically, its breadth is wide. But it’s coherent and expressively potent. To hear the piece live, then, is to experience some of the most captivating orchestral writing to date by one of America’s best composers (and musical storytellers).
There are four movements total.
The first one, “Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers,” opens with a flourish of winds and cimbalom (played Thursday with terrific panache by Chester Englander). A chromatic horn melody cedes way to the soloist, whose melodic line first soars, then, with a pulsing figure, turns to steel. These two characteristics – lyrical and driving – alternate for much of the movement.
The second movement, “A Long Desire (Love Scene),” kicks off with a passionate orchestral introduction. After the soloist enters, the line runs from dreamy (at the beginning) to aggressive (at the climax) and back again before a rather abrupt conclusion.
In the third movement, “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” stern orchestral outbursts are contrasted by flowing responses from the soloist. And the finale, “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary,” offers a series of tableaus that transform from wild and frantic to tranquil and serene.
Adams wrote the solo part for Josefowicz and her performance on Thursday was nothing short of heroic. Playing from memory, it was clear that she’s not only internalized the music but its deeper meanings, too: there’s an element of performance art to her interpretation in which her stage actions – grimaces, scowls, stares, smiles, etc. – are inextricably linked to what’s happening, narrative-wise and psychologically, in the piece. To say she owns Scheherezade.2, then, is maybe putting things too mildly; on stage, she is Scheherazade.
Gilbert, who led Scheherazade.2’s premiere in New York in 2015, directed this performance with almost breezy confidence. His gestures were fluent, cues precise. The BSO responded with playing of remarkable sensitivity – especially for their first undertaking of a complex, new score – and color.
Balances, particularly between soloist and the larger ensemble (especially strings), were excellent. Rhythmically, the big moments (the brass interjections at the beginning of the second movement, the taut orchestral statements in the third) were tight. The Sibelius-like chorale near the end of the finale sounded sumptuously. And the orchestral solos got off to a terrific start with principal horn James Sommerville at the beginning of the first movement and never looked back.
The first half of Thursday’s concert was compelling in its own right.
To open things, Gilbert led a well-paced, luminous reading of Sibelius’s En Saga, a twenty-minute-long orchestral essay the BSO hasn’t played in almost forty years. How that can be is mystifying, though you’d never be able to tell from the orchestra’s taut ensemble and many refulgent solos: principal viola Steven Ansell’s, principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs’, principal clarinet William Hudgens’, and principal flute Elizabeth Rowe’s chief among them. As in the Adams, balances were exceptionally well-realized. No section dominated another and the music’s many contrasts of texture were brought out to fine effect.
Similarly impressive was the account of Debussy’s Jeux that followed the Sibelius. Here the BSO was more on its Gallic home turf, playing with elegance and color. Gilbert’s tempos were well-judged and his command of the score’s architecture brought Debussy’s visionary writing – still so fresh 105 years later – thrillingly to life.
This weekend marks just Gilbert’s fourth subscription series with the BSO: the first was in 2003 and the other two fell during his tenure in New York. One hopes that, now that he’s free of the Philharmonic’s administrative duties, his work in Europe (he takes over as chief conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in 2019), where music directorships tend to be more music-centered than patron — and fundraising –focused, will allow for more frequent returns to Boston.
At any rate, this weekend’s concert fires on all cylinders. Don’t miss it.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.