Violinist Leila Josefowicz delivered a riveting and incisive performance with the Oregon Symphony (January 11) of John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, playing the extremely demanding music from memory. Wow! With her fingers flying all over her instrument, she created a searing impression of a strong-willed woman who fights to find her own path to freedom in spite of the constraints from her culture and the men in control of it.
Scheherazade.2 was inspired by the famous tale from the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights, but not in the way that you might think. Instead of another musical retelling of the story, Adams found a way to express his reaction to how women are treated cruelly in the tales and by how many cultures still regard and deal with women badly. So, with Scheherazade.2, the soloist is the young woman who escapes the clutches of men and their restrictions to arrive at a safe place.
Adams wrote the 50-minute piece for Josefowicz in 2014, and she has performed it many times since, including last fall with the composer on the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra. For her appearance with the Oregon Symphony, she collaborated with German conductor Alexander Liebreich, who made his United States debut with this concert.
Over the course of its four movements Scheherazade.2 held sway with Josefowicz digging into gnarly passages, rising above the fray of the orchestra. She led the audience in a journey that started with “Tale of the Wise Young Woman- Pursuit by the True Believers,” followed by “A Long Desire (Love Scene), then “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” and concluded with “Escape, Flight Sanctuary.” Along the way, she maintained a defiant tone that skillfully defied the ominous and threatening sounds from the orchestra, which included a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) played expertly by Chester Englander. Josefowicz fearless playing and the evocative nature of the piece drew loud cheers from all corners of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, deftly shaped by Liebreich, ushered in the second half of the evening with its provocative message. Principal trumpet Jeffrey Work expressed wonderfully subtle statements from off-stage while the woodwinds (led by principal flutist Martha Long) responded with an agitated flurry of rebuttals.
That piece segued seamlessly into Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra with its iconic opening passage in full glory. The orchestra excelled throughout with dynamic phrasing and a terrific ensemble sound. Lush strings, polished brass, spritely harp and flute, jocular clarinets, pummeling timpani… there were numerous exciting passages that made the piece especially gratifying. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak’s topped everything off with her lovely solos. Liebreich really got into the piece with emphatic conducting. It would be great to see him back on the podium again someday in the future.