Speaking to the Strathmore audience before Saturday night’s performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888) and John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 (2014), the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Marin Alsop noted the weekend’s program coincided with International Women’s Day. It was unclear to me whether Alsop said the timing of this particular program was deliberate or fortuitous, but given her stature as one of classical music’s most widely-known female conductors, and with the musically adventurous violinist Leila Josefowicz standing beside her, she seemed to welcome the audience to consider the program from perspectives that went beyond musical, noting her friend Adams was a strong feminist, and the inspiration for his interpretation was as much cultural and historical as it was musical.
That’s all to the good - as audience members, we should always be questioning how programs are curated, what messages they’re sending (good and bad), and considering their contents in as many contexts that apply. Art, like most everything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
So it was curious that the undeniably splendid performances of both works wound up feeling undermined by two decisions that cast a shadow where there should have been a glow.
The first bad decision was to program the Adams piece in the first half, which did a disservice to both Adams and Josefowicz, although let’s acknowledge it’s customary the first half of the program is when the evening’s guest soloist usually performs. I don’t know how that tradition came about, but I imagine it stays around to allow soloists can catch a flight to their next gig if necessary, or more likely, slip off to a nice dinner before it gets too late. But it’s time to reconsider the tradition, especially when in turns a program as promising as this upside down.
Adams’ take on Scheherazade is frightening and beautiful, agitated and tantric. It acknowledges the enticement of exocitism and makes plain the ugly realities of its expression. In its 2nd movement love scene (titled “A Long Desire”), Adams flirts with an homage to Rimsky-Korsakov only to turn away to music that’s profoundly sadder, conflicted, and leaves its protagonist sounding imperiled before ending with an extended meditation that creates a sense of isolation and remoteness. That sense of threat and agitation, is the recurring provocation running through Adams’ “dramatic symphony.” The listener cannot escape the sense of a storyteller in direct and immediate danger.
It’s a revisionist take, but one that we know is much more truthful than its source material. And if Adams has composed a rebuttal to Rimsky-Korsakov and his contemporaries, he’s also, as he has so many times before in his major works, created a dialogue that demands we question where we’ve been and where we’re going.
There is probably no better accomplice in creating that kind of dialogue than Josefowicz, who has created a niche market for herself as muse and advocate for contemporary composers, including Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Luca Francesconi. A forceful, active player, Josefowicz always seems to emotionally inhabit the music she’s performing (usually from memory). At times she seems to engage the orchestra in a kind of musical agon, while at others she appears to relish their presence. This wasn’t the most engaged performance from her that I’ve experienced, but she never fails to captivate.
But scheduling Scheherazade.2 in the first half positioned robbed it of the chance serve as a rebuke of the romanticized orientalism and fiction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. Adams’ work wants your close attention and rewards it. Rimsky-Korsakov’s is a giant machine of riffs and melody. Programming them in this order is like playing The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star,” then following it with Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” and expecting the listener to somehow draw connections between the two.
Then there was bad decision.2, which might be better described as “failure to conspire to make a statement and willfully disregarding the power of optics.” At some point during the past few months or weeks, someone at BSO should have noticed the opportunity existed to say something interesting and meaningful about women and classical music with this program since it falls on International Women’s Day AND features two works based on a classic FEMALE literary figure AND is being conducted by a woman AND features a prominent female guest soloist AND features two pieces with lengthy solo parts expressing the female voice AND having noticed ALL OF THAT said, “WOAH, we really should have a woman in the concertmaster’s chair that weekend performing that solo in the Rimsky.”
Maybe Jonathan Carney, the concertmaster, could have made that suggestion himself, which would have made it much easier to actually pull off, even though there is absolutely no doubt that he’s earned the right to perform that part and that he performed it well, infusing it with obvious pleasure and a sense of dramatic flair. But no matter how much Carney earned that spot, the optics of having a middle-aged white male taking the spotlight in a program that’s all about women felt problematic on a number of levels. It didn’t really diminish an exceptionally engaging all-around performance, highlighted by robust, Wagnerian-sounding performances from the horns and brass, and marvelous solos throughout the wind section, but it did feel like a missed opportunity.