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New Music in the Tennessee Mountains: Big Ears Festival 2015

Tennessee Theatre, Big Ears Festival
KNOXVILLE, TN - It didn't take long after my arrival at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last weekend for me to realize that this was no run-of-the-mill music festival. After picking up my wristband, I wandered next door to the landmark Tennessee Theatre, where the Kronos Quartet - this year's Artists-in-Residence - were finishing up their all-Terry Riley set with pipa master Wu Man. Then, in one of those magical moments that only seem possible at festivals, they were joined onstage by Riley and Laurie Anderson, each of whom told stories while Kronos improvised. Prior to that moment, I found out later, Riley and Anderson had never met in person, much less performed together. (Anderson was in town to perform Landfall with Kronos the following night.)

As I listened to Riley's rambling story about John Cage at a baseball game, I thought to myself: Where am I? How is it possible this is happening in a place not named New York, L.A., or San Francisco?

Turns out that Knoxville (pop. 180,000), aside from being home to the University of Tennessee and its 30,000 students and faculty, is also the home of AC Entertainment, best known as the co-producer of Bonnaroo in nearby Manchester, TN. AC Entertainment president Ashley Capps, who started Big Ears in 2009 (there was a hiatus from 2011-2013), applies the same basic formula here that he uses at Bonnaroo: pile together as much interesting, wow-inducing music as you can within a set amount of space and time in order to build a critical mass of energy and excitement. Add unannounced DJ sets, jam sessions, and a satellite festival, and you spin the whole thing into a wild frenzy.

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The New York Philharmonic Premieres John Adams' "Scheherazade.2"

John Adams and Leila Josefowicz
In the orchestra world, the received thinking is that if you're going to have a new work on a program, you put it on the first half, in order to give the audience a reason to come back after intermission. But, in recent weeks, the NY Phil has turned that thinking on its head by devoting the entire second half of the program to a contemporary work. First, there was the U.S. premiere of Thomas Adès' Totentanz: a 40-minute meditation on life and death inspired by a 15th century frieze Adés discovered in a German church. 

Then, last Thursday came the world premiere of John AdamsScheherazade.2, Adams' 3rd work for violin and orchestra. Adams wrote this 45 minute work - which he calls "A Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra" - specifically for Leila Josefowicz, whom he calls his "friend and champion" for nearly 15 years. The house, which looked to be nearly full, was buzzing with anticipation.

For the benefit of those who missed Monday night's preview at the Rubinstein Atrium, NY Phil Music Director Alan Gilbert brought Adams out onstage beforehand to speak about the work.  Similar to Adès, Adams said he was inspired by an art exhibition he saw at a museum in Paris, addressing how the Arabian Nights story has evolved over the centuries, reflected in the modern day persecution of women everywhere from Tahrir Square to the Rush Limbaugh show. Adams said he was also inspired by Josefowicz, whom he regards as the embodiment of Scheherazade as both beautiful woman and fearless, powerful artist.

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Preview: John Adams' "Scheherazade.2" at the NY Philharmonic

Leila Josefowicz and John Adams
If what I heard Monday night at the David Rubinstein Atrium is to be believed, everyone needs to run out and pick up a ticket for one of the NY Phil's subscription concerts this week. Because, after a somewhat pedestrian all-Russian first half, Alan Gilbert will lead the Phil in the world premiere of John AdamsScheherezade.2 with violinist Leila Josefowicz, a longtime proponent of Adams's music. The 45 minute work, which Adams calls "a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra," is significantly larger in scope than either of Adams' previous works for violin and orchestra: the Violin Concerto (1993) and The Dharma at Big Sur (2oo3). Indeed, the work is so big, it will take up the entire second half of the program.

"You have to be very, very prestigious," Adams writes in the program notes, "like Beethoven's Emperor concerto or a Brahms piano concerto to take over the larger spot in the program. But, that's what I wanted to write."

Inspired by the classic tale of the Persian queen who saves her life by telling her murderous king one story each night for 1,000 nights - the ".2" refers to Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic poem of the same name - Adams spoke about wanting to illuminate the darker, more sinister aspects of the story, in which he sees modern-day parallels in the way women are abused and oppressed around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Adams sent his first draft to Josefowicz on New Year's Day 2013, and the two have been working on it together ever since. "Collaboration," Adams said, "is the cruelest thing two people can do to each other, outside a double axe murder-suicide."

Josefowicz - who, remarkably, says that she's memorized her solo part - said that Scheherezade.2 is "such a big journey, such a huge range of emotions to try to pull off. I will never see music quite the same way again." (Josefowicz opened Monday's event with a typically tight performance of Adams' Road Movies with pianist John Novacek). For someone who has already contributed more to the modern orchestral canon than almost any other living composer, this sounds as if it might just be Adams' ultimate achievement.

More pics from Monday's discussion here. Tickets and info on this week's concerts - which take place at Avery Fisher Hall tomorrow, Friday and Saturday - here.