As the APO prepares to play a New Zealand premiere by the world’s leading composer, RICHARD BETTS looks at the many lives of Scheherazade, the teller of tall tales.
Opening Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2022 season brochure brought a groan. Scheherazade again? Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite is a wonderful piece of music but how often do we need to hear it? More fool me, because the Scheherazade the orchestra unveils at the Town Hall on 5 May has never been performed in New Zealand.
For those unfamiliar with her name, Scheherazade is the fictional young woman of the Arabian Nights who marries a sultan and each evening enchants him with a story. It’s from these tales – or later additions to them – that we know culture heroes like Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba.
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These fantastical stories, though, are built upon gruesome foundations. Scheherazade only spins her yarns to prevent herself from being bedded then beheaded by a husband who, having been betrayed by his first wife, is unable to trust women, and vows to take (it out on) a new bride each day.
It’s an ugly premise that has inspired beautiful music, most notably Rimsky-Korsakov’s beloved orchestral showpiece but Ravel wrote a gorgeous song cycle too. Both are masterpieces that remain repertoire staples.
The APO plays neither work in its concert. Instead, the orchestra presents a thoroughly modern maiden in the New Zealand premiere of John Adams’s Scheherazade.2. In Adams’s work – a 50-minute, four-movement dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra – the Scheherazade story is shaken up, spun around and viewed through a 21st century, feminist lens.
APO Director of Artistic Planning Gale Mahood is especially proud to bring Scheherazade.2 to Auckland. She’s not alone in considering Adams to be the world’s greatest living composer, and the APO has consistently programmed Adams’s music, presenting New Zealand premieres of several works, including the astonishing minimalist opera Nixon In China.
Mahood thinks Scheherazade.2 is in that sort of company, and timely as well, in its examination of contemporary cultural flashpoints.
“It’s incredibly relevant to everything we’ve experienced in the past 10 years,” she says.
Those experiences include – but are not limited to – weighty subjects like religious freedom and the #MeToo movement.
As a result, Adams’s Scheherazade is removed by era and inclination from Rimsky-Korsakov’s and Ravel’s weaver of tales. The latter pair are subject to men’s whims; here, Scheherazade is clever and resourceful but forced to use those gifts to keep herself safe from male violence.
Rimsky’s Scheherazade, in particular, is isolated and exposed; in the score she is represented by a lone violin. Although the instrument’s sinuous curlicues could almost describe the sultan’s 1001-night journey around his wife’s little finger, we must remember that she traces her beautiful patterns only to stay alive.
Adams’s Scheherazade is beautiful too – the soloist’s opening passages are particularly lovely – but she is no one’s plaything. She’s defiant, doing battle with the orchestra from the off, the words “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” metaphorically slashed into the violin’s neck. And despite the orchestra’s swirl, she remains the centre of attention; you daren’t take your eye off her for a second, she’s too magnetic, and besides, look away and you might get a knife through the windpipe. Which puts a large portion of the audience in an uncomfortable position. For while all three musical Scheherazades – Russian, French and American – are subject to the male gaze, only Adams’s raises a mirror, reflecting that stare back at the crowd.
Adams cautions against taking the music as strictly programmatic but it’s nevertheless powerful, thought-provoking stuff. Of course, none of the political intent would have anywhere near the same impact were Scheherazade.2 not a cracking piece of music.
Gale Mahood is certain that it is.
“I’m convinced orchestras will be playing [Scheherazade.2] 100 years from now,” she says. “It’s a masterpiece.”