Josefowicz, Salonen and CSO deliver compelling virtuosity in Adams premiere

Fri Mar 03, 2017 at 3:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leila Josefowicz was the violin soloist in John Adams' "Scheherazade.2" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz was the violin soloist in John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Reflecting the conservative emphasis of its current music director, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the past several years has largely ignored music of American composers, with only token forays by composers in residence. (Not only has Philip Glass’s 80th birthday season not been noted this year–the CSO, amazingly, has never performed a note of Glass’s music.)

But things are looking up. Riccardo Muti will conduct works by five homegrown composers in 2017-18, including three world premieres. And the final months of the current season offer several contemporary works new to the CSO repertory. First up was John Adams’ Scheherazade.2, heard in its Chicago premiere with violinist Leila Josefowicz and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen Thursday night.

Having turned 70 two weeks ago, John Adams has reached official musical elder statesman status. Yet in the past decade Adams’ output has been uneven at best—ranging from the jokey and vacuous (Absolute Jest) to the preachy and pretentious (The Gospel According to the Other Mary).

Happily, Scheherazade.2—a violin concerto in all but name–shows Adams once again at the top of his game, writing for large forces with great confidence and skill in music that is artfully varied and consistently engaging, with expressive weight and a touching humanity.

As its title indicates, Scheherazade.2 takes its origins from the title story-weaver of the Arabian Nights, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s celebrated symphonic tone poem, also with a prominent violin part.

Yet Adams’ 2015 work has a darker contemporary inspiration as well. The composer was struck by news images of women being abused and beaten by fanatical mobs in largely Arabic countries.

In Adams’ scenario, he posits the title heroine as a modern feminist icon of sorts, represented by the solo violin. Though the music is not specifically programmatic, this modern Scheherazade is a “Wise Young Woman” who is pursued by the “True Believers.” Following a love scene, she is arrested and put on trial where she is scorned by the religious “Men with Beards.” She takes flight and escapes, eventually finding sanctuary from her tormenters.

If Adams’ backstory is rather simplistic in its “men bad, women good” platitudes, the music is strong enough to rise above the pieties. Indeed this “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra” is one of Adams’ finest works in years.

Written in four sections spanning 48 minutes, the work begins with a long, searching theme for the soloist. Though scored for huge orchestra, Adams uses his forces mostly for subtle effects and coloring–not least the prominent cimbalom, which lends a kind of exotic color commentary to the proceedings. There are bravura episodes in the Pursuit and Flight sections in Adams’ best hard-charging style for big symphonic band. Yet what is most striking are the many subdued sections. The intimate love scene, “A Long Desire,” offers some of Adams’ most lovely and inward music. 

Adams composed Scheherazade.2 for his frequent collaborator Josefowicz, and the close identification of the violinist with the title heroine was strongly manifest in her barn-burning performance Thursday night. At times Josefowicz seemed to be acting out Adams’ repurposed heroine as much as playing her music, with her elastic body language and an actor’s range of facial expressions.

Josefowicz’s timbre is as lean and sinewy as her well-toned arms, and the violinist barreled through the myriad technical hurdles with staggering speed and accuracy. She also touchingly conveyed the reflective pages with a noble, pure tone, ending the work in a shimmering pianissimo note of peace and hard-won solace.

Under Salonen’s exacting direction, the orchestra lent their soloist comparably gleaming and virtuosic support. The concerto was received with a rousing ovation that seemed as much for Adams’ music as it was for Josefowicz’s athletic and communicative performance. Yo-Yo Ma, who will perform the world premiere of Salonen’s Cello Concerto with the CSO next week, was among those in the lower balcony providing enthusiastic applause.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

It was daring to put The Rite of Spring on the same program as a new 50-minute work. Yet rather than the sonic showpiece often whipped up by lesser hands on short rehearsal time, Salonen led the CSO in an uncommonly fresh and thoughtful account of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking 1912 ballet.

The opening pages lacked something in mystery yet the performance quickly got on track. Salonen’s view leans more toward the French than Russian side of this score, with an emphasis on refined, transparent textures  and acute balancing. Yet there was no lack of power or intensity, with the violent eruptions, driving cross-rhythms and pounding double timpani even more jarring for the hushed quality of the intervening episodes.

“Revelatory” would be overstating it, but rarely will one hear so much detail in this complex score as Salonen managed to uncover Thursday night. Time and again one caught a previously hidden woodwind fragment, a theme for violas, or a shift in dynamics that usually gets buried in the sonic tumult. By sections and individually the orchestra distinguished themselves across the board, not least bassoonist Keith Buncke, and timpanist David Herbert.

The evening began in a more subdued vein with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Salonen led a flowing, elegant account with principal flute Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson floating his solo line with apt evocative languor.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m Tuesday.; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Josefowicz, Salonen and CSO deliver compelling virtuosity in Adams premiere”

  1. Posted Mar 03, 2017 at 3:30 pm by Spencer Cortwright

    So frequently starting a review by bashing Riccardo Muti is getting really old and always sounds juvenile.

  2. Posted Mar 03, 2017 at 4:34 pm by Brad

    It was a great concert, as I’ve come to expect when Salonen is in Chicago. I believe that was Tom Hooten, principal trumpet of the LA Phil, sitting in Chris Martin’s vacated chair. I suppose the tryouts have begun!

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