John Adams Barbican Oct 2015

John Adams UK premier of Scheherazade.2

Jon Adams Conductor

Leila Josefowicz Violin

London Symphony Orchestra


I've been a fan of John Adams' work for many years now and so was excited to see that a UK premier of his new composition Scheherazade.2 was coming to London's Barbican Hall.

I've seen John conduct the LSO several times and have loved all the performances, although occasionally I've had my reservations about the LSO, in particular the intonation of the brass section, which has from time to time been a little wayeward. However, tonight the LSO are on top form, delivering spotless performances!  

The first two pieces in the programme are from another favourite of mine, RavelThe opening performance: Pavane pour une infante défunte is a well trodden composition and despite the overuse of the piece in modern media, Adams and the LSO animate this sometimes tired music with a new vigour and emotional resonance.   

To follow, selections from Mother Goose at first seemed to be strange choices, although as the evening progresses the logic becomes clear, with comparisons in texture and orchestral colour becoming apparent on hearing Scheherazade.2. The pure magic of Ravel's ability as orchestrator burst from the stage with such brilliance it has me utterly entranced for the entire performance and grinning, cheesier cat like, from ear to ear! The oriental sounding pentatonic phrases and sustained string textures of Tom Thumb, to my delight, come to life with all the theatricality of an evening at the Ballet.     


After a short interval the concert progresses to its conclusion, the UK premier of Scheherazade.2. Before I delve further into my thoughts about Scheherazade.2 I should say that I am particularly fond of John's tonal work. Adapting the minimalist language of Steve Reich, Adam's application of tonal, minimalist writing to the orchestra has defined some of his most famous works and some of my personal favourites: HarmonielehreShort Ride in a Fast Machine & Lollapalooza. Alongside Adam's tonal works there are the much more abstract, impressionistic compositions, Dr. Atomic Symphony for instance, filled with its bombastic timpani passages and firecracker string lines. It is into this territory that we stray with Scheherazade.2.  


I am enormously supportive of the central theme of Scheherazade.2. namely that of women's equality. Having women as equal partners in every walk of life seems to me to be an essential component of the happiness and prosperity of all human beings. Leila Josefowicz's performance tonight is a case in point. Her sheer ability and musicality are breathtaking not to mention her musical memory! Quite extraordinary. 

Scheherazade.2 begins with a Stravinsky-esque cimbalom texture and a wandering, almost searching solo violin line floating above. Josefowicz's playing maintains an effortless lyricism even in the most dissonant and frantic passages.  The pointalistic writing of the accompaniment is apparent throughout the composition as is the way that Josefowicz's playing tugs and pushes against the orchestra. Similarities of orchestration between Mother Goose and Scheherazade.2 begin to become more and more apparent as the composition develops, particularly intoning the sustained string clusters and finger tremolo cello parts of the Ravel.

I am particularly impressed with the double bass players tonight who's job is a daunting one as the parts call for such full range and fast playing. The left hands of the players are flying back and forth with such frequency they become almost a blur. 

There is so much to absorb! Almost music overload! And the escalating dissonance begins to effect my concentration. Given the subject matter the mood is perfect, although it doesn't make for light listening. I imagine the need to spend much more time with this composition to begin to appreciate the subtitles.   

Overall I am impressed with the performance especially the dynamic range, orchestral colour and Sheer virtuosity of Josefowicz. Perhaps Scheherazade.2 will not become my favourite Adams composition but it has been an extrondinay experience and one that look forward to returning to armed with my headphones.

You can hear the NewYork Philharmonic & Josefowicz perform Scheherazade.2 below. The piece begins at around 55mins.   

Joff Winks

Greetings my name is Joff Winks I’m a musician, composer, teacher, professional daydreamer and passionate advocate of the arts.