ASO: John Adams

Before I talk about tonight’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, I just want to say that I have had the worst luck in seating this season. Although it hasn’t just been the ASO, the ASO has been the worst. Of the 14 ASO concerts that I’ve attended so far this year, I have had issues with fellow audience members making unreasonable amounts of noise, falling asleep, fidgeting, kicking the seats, or smelling bad at every single one of them. Part of this may be because attendance has been higher, but it has been a problem even at concerts that haven’t been well attended and I’ve been to a number of sold out concerts in the past without having any issues. I think that some of it is that they don’t have Sunday matinées anymore so more people are coming who would otherwise be much more alert and comfortable attending at an earlier time of the day. I know that a lot of the issues that I’ve had with noxious ointments or small children are probably a result of that.

Anyway, I wish that I had more to say about the Liadov and Respighi, but there were several conversations going on around me during the first half of the performance and, while I could hear enough to know that the works were well conducted by Adams and wonderfully performed by the orchestra, I couldn’t give it the focus that it deserved. I asked to be reassigned to a new seat during intermission and the usher was kind enough to go to the box office to arrange for a new seat for me. When he came back, he informed me that the seats around me were actually unassigned so the people who were disrupting the concert for me were likely late-comers who were seated in the closest available seats. Oy! The nice thing, though, is that my new seat was quite a bit closer and brought me out from under the mezzanine, so I was in a much better position to hear (and see) the Adams piece.

Adams introduced Scheherazade.2 by explaining that his inspiration for the piece came from his realization that violence against women was taken so lightly in the story(ies) of “The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night.” It brought to his mind the violence and persecution that women still face all over the world so he imagined a modern Scheherazade having to stand up for herself against a tyranny of zealous men just to survive the way that the original did through her story telling. Though not really a narrative, the program that he imagined for four movements of the piece begins with an introduction to a wise young woman who is then pursued by “true believers,” which he points out doesn’t really refer to any specific religion or ideology, followed by a love scene in the second movement that begins with forceful conflict but ends with tenderness. Adams explicitly points out in his program notes — though he, sadly, didn’t say this out loud — that there is no reason to believe that her lover is a man and not a woman, which I found to be very refreshing. People who interpret established stories for heroines seem obsessed with making sure that they include some kind of romantic or sexual interest even when the original stories may not have had any such thing (e.g. Tharp’s take on “The Princess and the Goblin,” Wheeldon’s take on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” or nearly every take on “Red Riding Hood” in the past 50 years). The Scheherazade of “The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night” had no romantic or sexual agency at all and her life was at risk because of sexual liberties taken by one of her predecessors, but there is a lot of romance in the various stories she tells and since Adams does actually seem to be willing to grant his Scheherazade the liberty to choose her own lover without consulting cultural norms, I think that that we can give him a pass on this one.

Following the romantic scene, Adams’ Scheherazade is brought before a council of “Men with Beards,” which is a strange image coming from a composer who is a man with a beard who seems to want to avoid restricting his Scheherazade’s persecutors to Islamic zealots, but whatever. After they sentence her to death, the fourth movement expresses her escape, flight, and attainment of sanctuary.

The music that Adams wrote to convey this program was astounding. There was strength, beauty, power, excitement, and so much more to it that had me completely engrossed. Josefowicz, for whom the piece was written, brought so much to the solo violin that represented Adams’ heroine and seemed to actually be in the character throughout the piece, even when quietly listening to the rest of the orchestra. The piece was as bravely played as it was written and it deserved the enthusiastic response that it received and, as you can tell, I enjoyed it immensely.

My enjoyment and praise for the piece clearly stated, though, I was a little confused that Adams’ orchestration of the piece included a cimbalom. While this is a wonderful instrument, I’m not entirely sure why it was included. First of all, it seemed a bit quiet for a concert hall designed for the large sounds of a symphony orchestra. Indeed, it was mostly overpowered by the orchestra through much of the piece and significant portions were impossible to hear from my upgraded seat in row M. Even when it was playing with minimal competing sound, it was hard to hear. I can’t imagine that I’d have heard it much at all in the rear orchestra, though I’m wondering if the sound wouldn’t have drifted upward a bit so that the folks in the mezzanine and balcony could hear it better than I could. I wonder if that was a shortcoming of Symphony Hall, though, because I just did a search to see what reviewers thought of it when it premiered and they all praised the cimbalom. Beyond that, I have to say that I found it a bit odd to have a Hungarian instrument that isn’t a standard part of a symphony orchestra thrown into the middle of a reimagining of an Arabic collection of tales that came from Persia and India. Then again, Adams does things like that — like when he wrote the chorus for A Flowering Tree in Spanish while the rest of the opera was in English — and the instrument did accentuate the piece in interesting ways when I could hear it clearly. So, all of that said, I hope to one day hear a recording where the cimbalom is made a little more prominent so that I can better hear how it works in the piece.

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