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A new 'Scheherazade'


John Adams, 'Scheherazade 2' performed by violinist Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson (Nonesuch).

The basic idea of this seems irresistible: one of the most interesting of all post-minimalist contemporary composers going back to  inspiration from one of the most beloved of all warhorses, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," one of the 19th century's most exemplary masterpieces in the arts of orchestral color and orchestration itself. In other words, a new going back to "The Arabian Nights" (more accurately the "The Thousand and One Nights").

But forget it, John Adams tells us. Which is why it's weirdly disappointing. His inspiration wasn't Rimsky-Korsakov but a Parisian exhibit detailing the history of the book and Adams' sudden realization of "the casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales" which "prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis.

In the old tale, Scheherazade is the lucky one who, through her endless inventiveness, is able to save her life. But there is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep on entertaining her warped murderous husband." So that is the psychological frame of Adams' work, not the exoticism of a foreign culture or the narrative brutality of the work beyond its amazing frame tale. Adams says he acknowledges predecessors in works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartok and Berg not Rimsky-Korsakov.

So it's an interesting and dramatic postmodern violin concerto but completely without the qualities that made Rimsky-Korsakov as endlessly captivating as Scheherazade's tales.

2 1/2 stars (out of four)



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