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Move Over Rimsky-Korsakov!

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
05/07/2016 -  & May 4, 5 (Toronto), 8, 2016 (Montreal)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to “Egmont”, Op. 84
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
John Adams: Scheherazade.2 (Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra)

Leila Josefowicz (violin), Chester Englander (cimbalom)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor)

For many decades the visual arts worldwide have been increasingly political with “concept” being the operative word and this often taking precedence over aesthetic considerations. Perhaps the most controversial example in recent times was Canadian artist Jana Sterback’s 1987 piece, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, constructed from 50 pounds of raw flank steak sewn together on a tailor’s dummy. Ms. Sterbak stated the work was “a contrast between vanity and bodily decomposition” and was perceived as denouncing oppression and objectification of women in contemporary society. (As well as being prominently exhibited at Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa, editions also are in the permanent collections of both The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Centre Pompidou in Paris.)

American composer John Adams’ new work, Scheherazade.2 (Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra), is being presented in Ottawa and Montreal this weekend by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), and it seems arguably a music parallel to what Sterbak created with Vanitas almost thirty years ago. In a program note for Scheherazade.2 the composer, referencing the legendary Persian Queen, states: “the casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today on the news on a daily basis... there is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep entertaining her warped, murderous husband.”

Canadian composers also have been dealing lately with tales and music realizations concerning oppression of women. In Ottawa, the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s 2015-16 season has included such works, most recently I Lost My Talk by John Estachio and Dear Life by Zosha Di Castri, with more to come.

The problem with all this is that the political and story foundations cited by these various composers don’t always come across with much clarity in an actual performance. There’s no question that John Adams’ approach to the Scheherazade legend is valid and brilliantly realized. The problem with his new work is that if listeners are not spoon-fed the entire back story (both the original legend and his approach to it) there’s little in this score that many would connect with Scheherazade, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. In fact, the score stands very well on its own purely musical, abstract and intellectual terms. Are the old legend and social politics (which of course help to attract grants, commissions and more) really necessary?

Adams is no stranger to controversy, as his 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer proved (and generated even more at a recent Metropolitan Opera revival in New York). Less dedicated audiences may know him best from music for the 2009 Italian film, I Am Love, where his typically minimalist score was a major factor in cementing the story’s intensity.

Scheherazade.2 will disappoint listeners accustomed to the flashy Rimsky-Korsakov version, though Mr. Adams’ new version, if less conspicuously melodic, does not stint on its orchestration – in addition to the always colorful and sensuous harp and celesta, he adds the cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer popular in central Europe during the later 19th century), and an impressive percussion array with the clapper getting a heavy workout plus frequent multi-instrument explosive blasts. The violin soloist represents Scheherazade and was finely performed by Leila Josefowicz, a long-time collaborator of Mr. Adams. Chirping brass were another highlight, and the final movement included an extended string sequence which was both lush and mournful.

In the end, this music works very well on its own as music. Do we really need to attach it to contemporary social politics or to a popular ancient legend to sell it to audiences, impresarios, record companies and other power brokers?

It’s good to report that the TSO delivered a bang-up performance of a demanding new work, under the tight control of its outgoing maestro, Toronto-born Peter Oundjian.

During the concert’s first half, the TSO gave taught, almost machine-like readings of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Brahms’ magnificent Symphony No. 4. Both were admirably focussed, tight performances though dynamic range at lower levels was limited and genuine pianissimos were rare. (Pinchas Zukerman managed better sonic balance when he conducted the Brahms Symphony No. 4 with NACO in late November, 2014.)

This might have been a problem of adjusting to Southam Hall’s acoustics vis-à-vis the orchestra’s home base, Roy Thomson Hall. However, the orchestra delivered dynamic and textural range in spades during Scheherazade.2.

Charles Pope Jr.



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