Scheherazade III Flute I.I

Last Friday night to the SOH to hear the SSO conducted by David Robertson in an intriguing double bill.  I also listened to most of again when it was broadcast on Sunday afternoon.

First up, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

I fancy the cognoscenti look down a bit on this work – the SSO relegates it to their lighter Metro series rather than the Master – but I love it.  That’s probably because it was one of the few LPs of romantic orchestral works which we had in the house when I was a teenager – acquired by my sister, I expect on account of the flute solo, especially in the third movement, starting off with the unfurling and furling motif above and then the accompaniment and tune below, though I now see that the flute has rather less of this tune than it did in my memory:

Scheherazade III Flute 1.II

How fleeting are the solos that orchestral players live for!

Of course, the main and far from fleeting solo is the violin solo, played suavely on this occasion by Andrew Haveron, though in my memory Dene Olding (not so much favoured by Mr Robertson, it seems) managed a sweeter and more exotic (pace Edward Said) rendition.

The orchestra played well though I did feel that Mr Robertson was running a slightly too-tight ship: somehow (and I don’t know exactly how), for example, I felt that the sea could have rolled a bit more liltingly (maybe the opening 6/4 in the first movement was just slower than the recording imprinted on me in adolescence) and throughout the piece the orchestra as a whole struck me as a bit, well, to be frank, glum.  I know, I know, they could just all have been concentrating and working very hard, and the performance as a whole was quite brilliant, but a space for delight – wide open steppes of it are part of my picture of this work notwithstanding that steppes are a bit north of Persia, seemed elusive.

After interval, John Adams’ re-take on the same story: a violin concerto/dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra (that is surely a nod to Harold in Italy for Viola) titled Scheherazade.2.  The soloist, for whom the work was written and who gave the first performance last year in New York, was Leila Josefowicz.

Adams’ style has moved on a bit from Short ride in a fast machine (which still sounded great when I heard the Bishop orchestra play it at this January’s National Music Camp) or Harmonium or Harmonielehre.

This take on the 1001 nights professed to be a reaction to the misogyny Adams discovered when looking at them afresh.  Funnily enough (great minds think alike etc) about a month ago I dipped into my mother’s copy of a school version of the Arabian Nights .  What struck me in the original framing story was not just the misogyny or the framing story of the Shah resolving to take a new wife each night and then kill her.  That misogyny, after all, is implicitly disapproved by Scheherazade’s project when she volunteers to be the next wife to try to bring this to an end.  What struck me was the second nightmare lurking beneath the tales and not, I think, reproached but rather taken as a given: not only are the Shah and his brother both betrayed by their wives with menials in their absence, but those menials are black slaves.

Actually, although Adams professes to broaden his concern to the position of women in all societies, I’m not sure the time is quite right for Americans to express their liberal concern for the plight of women of middle-eastern appearance.  It can’t help being political and a kind of convenient truth.

So mostly I just paid attention to the music.

The piece has four movements:

I. Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers
II. A Long Desire (love scene)
III. Scheherazade and the Men with Beards
IV. Escape, Flight, Sanctuary

The second is (of course) a slow movement, and referenced the Rimsky-Korsakov violin solo.  I liked that the most.  There was a lot of dense/lush string sound, which returned in the last movement where, wisely, Adams chose to lay on the schmalz a bit.  That’s a tactic which has worked at least since Hindemith ended anything acerbic with his own type of tierce-de-Picardie.  Josefowicz was a compelling soloist (playing the whole part from memory, which was pretty impressive and I am sure freed her up in a way that soloists in contemporary works who still use the music are not always).

Elsewhere the title of the third movement has been criticised as racist.  The claim by Adams that he is also thinking of (beardless, mostly, I expect) macho miscreants on US campuses is a bit feeble.  Then again, it’s not as if there isn’t a bit of a musical tradition of not very flattering approaches to men with beards – for example the bickering Pharisees in Salome.

Rebecca Lagos played a prominent cimbalom part.  She got a big round of applause at the end from her fellow orchestra members.  I wouldn’t have any idea whether such a part should be entrusted to an actual cimbalom player (surely they exist though maybe not in Sydney) rather than a generalist percussionist, however capable.  Afternote: Rebecca Lagos’s biography in the program for the Messiaen Canyon to the Stars states that she is the SSO’s resident cimbalom player, so perhaps I am understating her dedicated attention to the instrument.

The players looked a bit happier at the end of this than they had at the end of the first half.  I went home enlivened.


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