A king's mistress and teller of a thousand fascinating stories in the Arabian Nights. That is the image we have of Scheherazade, immortalized musically in Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic symphonic suite, one of classical music's best-loved compositions.
John Adams' "Scheherazade.2" is different. The American composer took the myth and flipped it for a more egalitarian era. Up pops the misogyny of the original legend, its grimly phallocentric ideology, and the threat of violence overhanging women who dare to challenge orthodoxy.
Scheherazade, as recast in Adams' scenario, is embodied in the solo violinist, who plays a major part in all four movements. The vision emerging from her wrangled confrontations with a frequently malevolent orchestra is one of femininity squeezed and twisted in the grip of an aggressive, dominating masculinity.
Leila Josefowicz was soloist for Thursday morning's Minnesota Orchestra performance, as she was 18 months ago at the New York premiere. Adams wrote the work for her. And she played with the indomitability of a warrior princess, her violin a sinuously abiding presence amid the snapping accusations of the "Men With Beards" movement.
This new Scheherazade is also a woman of strong, mysterious sexuality. The second movement, "A Long Desire," is nominally a love scene, but its lurking eroticism and scrunching harmonies have a dark, unsettling quality, far from our conventional feminine stereotypes. This was music of the untamed Freudian id, not the more palatable ego.
Again in the finale Josefowicz's furious double-stopping signaled the fierce independence Adams sees in his Scheherazade. Does she find the "sanctuary" promised by the movement's title? If so, it has a temporary feel — the coda is brief and highly ambiguous, with the violin floating in what appears to be some lonely, unquiet region of the spirit.
Josefowicz was totally commanding, and she was accompanied by a sharply attentive orchestra. The work itself is demanding of its listeners. At 40 minutes, it stretches the limits of its material. But it undoubtedly hits hard, and its examination of gender issues has piercing relevance in today's world.
Before the intermission the focus was mainly on English conductor Edward Gardner, making his first appearance with the orchestra. It was a brilliant debut, epitomized in the electrifying performance of Berlioz's overture to "Benvenuto Cellini," which opened the concert. This is rhythmically tricky music, but Gardner, his body language bursting with tightly coiled energy, had its full measure. The orchestra's playing bristled with vitality and the finale was scintillatingly executed.
So, too, was the Second Suite from Ravel's ballet "Daphnis and Chloe," a sensual interpretation that benefited greatly from the clarity of Gardner's baton technique and his gripping sense of theater. He should be invited back as soon as possible.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.