Last night, my parents and I had the privilege of seeing John Adams conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a work of his own composition, Scheherazade.2 (tickets were half off in honor of Mother’s Day weekend). I was especially excited to hear Adams’ re-imagination of the Arabian Nights folktales since I had decided to compare The Thousand and One Nights to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for my final term paper in comparative literature this past semester. (On a side note, scientists sometimes explain the idea of epigenetic regulation of gene expression using a symphony orchestra as an analogy in which the specific notes of the symphony are akin to the genome, or the DNA sequence, and the finer subtleties of the piece, such as dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation, constitute the epigenome. This analogy, however, invariably begs the question, “Who is the conductor?” to which there is no simple answer. I prefer the computer analogy where the genome constitutes the hardware of the machine, the platform on which everything else takes place, and the epigenome functions as software. Ironically enough, Adams joked that the title Scheherazade.2 sounds like a software update and explained that he intended his piece as an adaptation for the modern-day Scheherazade, a heroine in the fight for gender equality.) The four-movement piece, written for violinist Leila Josefowicz, whom Adams considers “a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess,” differs quite a bit from its 19th century predecessor in many ways. While both pieces are staged in four movements and feature the character of Scheherazade as the central protagonist (represented by violin motifs), the two works convey different themes and ranges of emotions.
Adams calls his piece a “dramatic symphony,” and dramatic, it was, indeed. The first movement, “Tale of the Wise Young Woman—Pursuit by the True Believers,” introduces Scheherazade in “elegiac lines that keep breaking into skittish flights,” according to New York Times author Anthony Tommasini. Our young heroine begins to sound frantic, hurried, and even manic once the true believers, portrayed as a series of jagged chords, set their sights on her. The second movement consists of a love scene, violent at first but eventually resolving into mutual hope and understanding. In the third movement (my personal favorite), “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” our heroine is tried by a court of religious zealots, culminating with Scheherazade being sentenced to death. The section also makes significant use of a cimbalom, better known as a “hammered dulcimer,” played by Chester Englander. This movement reminded me of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at times, specifically the opera section, which references Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo, Figaro, and Bismillah as rival factions fighting over the narrator’s soul. Music scholar Judith Peraino had once described this sequence as a “comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage… one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek though wily.” In Adams’ composition, the protagonist continues to calmly respond to the accusations flung against her until she is finally condemned to death, at which point Josefowicz begins playing sul ponticello (bowing right over the bridge), creating a skeletal, scratching sound, evocative of Scheherazade’s anguish.
The final movement, “Escape, Flight, and Sanctuary,” involves more scurrying and agitation until eventually alighting on a more bittersweet note, signifying that Scheherazade has reached a haven in which she is not necessarily content but is at least safe. Gabbie Watts of Atlanta’s NPR station describes the conclusion as a “Shostakovich kind of sunshine.” Herein lies one of the most striking differences between Adams’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s versions of the story. In the modern retelling, Scheherazade manages to escape her oppressors, but her oppressors essentially remain unchanged in their ideas and ways, while in the original story, Scheherazade successfully transforms the Sultan, who recants his murderous vow, and saves countless lives in the process. Through this lens, the original Scheherazade seems more empowered and self-actualized than her modern-day counterpart. Furthermore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition seemed to convey a broader range of emotion from stern acerbity to subdued tenderness and tranquility. In contrast, Adams’ piece always possesses elements of consternation, as Scheherazade constantly faces new threats and adopts the role of a fugitive or refugee. Finally, while Rimsky-Korsakov told a flowing narrative through his composition, Adams’ work consists of a series of more discrete images.
While Scheherazade.2 may not have been my cup of tea (perhaps I am too much of a philistine), I am nonetheless glad that we are still afforded the opportunity to hear new works of classical music to this day. A couple years ago, NPR’s Deceptive Cadence interviewed David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, about the difficulties contemporary composers face in having their works performed. Audiences are not as comfortable with the unknown and often desire a certain degree of assurance that they are listening to music of the highest quality in their limited leisure time. Robertson even described challenges to the introduction of older works not already established in the classical repertoire. He discussed his lack of success in getting the First Symphony by Vasily Kalinnikov, a piece from the 19th century, performed except in instances where he was music director because the overwhelming sentiment was, “Here’s this big unknown symphony by someone whose name sounds like an automatic rifle.” Given the sometimes hostile atmosphere of professional life as a composer, listening to new compositions like those of John Adams inspires hope for future generations of budding composers.