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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.

Leila JosefowiczPhoto: Chris Lee, NY Philharmonic

Soon, Josefowicz came out and, as promised, performed the entire challenging solo part from memory. Adams doesn't offer a specific narrative for the work, only a series of provocative titles: "Tale of the Wise Young Woman; Pursuit by the True Believers; A Long Desire (Love Scene); Scheherazade and the Men with Beards." A far cry from the post-minimalist Adams of Harmonielehre or Shaker Loops, Scheherazade.2's sound world owes far more to Stravinsky and Bartok than Glass or Reich. A key addition to the orchestra was the cimbalom - played here by Chester Englander - giving the music an exotic, faintly Persian quality. 

Even after just one performance, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Josefowicz performing this dramatic music, throwing her entire self into it the way an actor would for a particularly demanding role. Well beyond standard stage histrionics, Josefowicz was downright erotic at times, tossing her head back as if in the throes of climax. At other points, she unleashed a fury that was both violent and intense, alternating with dissonant blasts from the orchestra. This was one woman who wasn't going to take abuse or oppression lying down.

The final movement depicted Scheherazade running away from her pursuers, echoing the frenetic finale of Adams' original Violin Concerto, now 22 years old. Soon after, the music arrives at a "Sanctuary" of sonorous string music before finally fading away to silence. 

John Adams and Leila JosefowiczAs expected, the hall erupted in a wild ovation for both Adams and Josefowicz, who seemed energized, rather than exhausted by the experience. After only one listening, I can't honestly assess whether or not Scheherazade.2 is a masterpiece, but it is certainly big and virtuosic. Almost too big. 

For me, at least, fatigue was a factor, given that the first half of the concert included Stravinsky's Petruskha: a substantial work which under any other circumstances would have been the program closer. Gilbert, who conducted without a baton - possibly a tribute to former NY Phil Music Director Pierre Boulez on his 90th birthday - led an occasionally plodding but ultimately vibrant and satisfying performance. Anatoly Lyadov's lush, vaguely Wagnerian The Enchanted Lake (1909) opened the concert. New York PhilharmonicMore pics on the photo page