Storytelling — of a sort — was on offer from guest conductor Alan Gilbert and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday. Jean Sibelius’s early tone poem En saga preceded Claude Debussy’s last orchestral work, the “poème dansé” Jeux, which he wrote for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. After intermission came John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for solo violin and orchestra,” with the soloist, Leila Josefowicz, for whom the work was written. The storytelling wasn’t always lucid, but the musicmaking was unexceptionable.
En saga premiered in 1893 before being revised in 1902; it’s this second version that you almost always hear now. (Not that you hear it very often: the BSO’s previous performance, under Colin Davis, was in 1979, and before that in 1940 with Tauno Hannikainen.) The title is Swedish for “A Fairy Tale” (Sibelius’s mother was Swedish, and Swedish was his first language); you might expect the piece, which was originally composed soon after Kullervo, to draw on the legends of the Kalevala, but Sibelius doesn’t seem to have had any particular tale in mind. Years later, he recalled, “En saga is one of my most profound works in psychological meaning. I could even say that it contains all my youth. It is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.”
It’s not clear what “painful experiences” Sibelius is referring to: in late 1892, when he was composing En saga, he had just gotten married and was basking in the success of Kullervo. But what En saga reveals is a tonal center that keeps shifting between C and E flat, and between major and minor, plus a trio of ostinato-like themes and that peculiar Sibelian honking in the winds that suggests a flock of geese. After an unsettled introduction with a rising theme in the bassoons that’s taken up by the cellos, the piece settles into its two main themes: a rhythmically nervous one that starts in the violas, and a pulsing dance that, but for Sibelius’s rejection of “literary explanations,” you could imagine as Lemminkäinen’s flight from men whose women he’s seduced. Moments of sweet sunlight can’t keep the piece from slowing and stumbling to a halt; when the introduction attempts a restart, something like a panic attack ensues, complete with hammering bass drum. En saga limps home with an extended solo-clarinet version of the bassoon theme and then the nervous rhythm intoned, ppp on one note, in the cellos.
Gilbert painted the piece in bright colors rather than misty hues, with sharp contrasts and no stinting of pain. His slashing podium style was reflected in the orchestra’s slashing attacks. The honking winds were ominous; the introduction and the climaxes were turbulent. Elizabeth Rowe’s flute solo petered out into a stasis that was truly hushed; the chaos that followed was that much more shocking, and then William Hudgins’s clarinet solo, as beautiful in phrasing as it was in tone. Gilbert kept the focus sharp to the very end, where for the final eight measures the cellos gave way to Sato Knudsen’s solo instrument, all that was left of this story.
Jeux was a 1912 commission from Diaghilev for a ballet to be choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. Debussy was unenthusiastic at first, calling the proposed scenario — which had to do with tennis — “idiotic,” but he reconsidered when Diaghilev doubled the fee. He composed the score in a month; the ballet debuted at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 15, 1913 (just two weeks before Stravinsky’s Sacre), with Pierre Monteux conducting. The audience received the following synopsis:
“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”
That’s not exactly what happens on stage. When the boy goes in search of the tennis ball, he finds instead two tennis-playing girls whom he doesn’t appear to have met before. He shows off for them; he dances with girl #1 while #2 sulks, then with #2 while #1 sulks. The girls dance with each other, as if they were sisters (or lovers) and didn’t need him. Eventually all three lie down, the girls’ heads on his chest, as if the faun of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune had enticed a couple of nymphs to join him. But before the party can get serious, that second tennis ball bounces in.
Debussy conveys all this in a score that starts out Scherzando but goes, in the course of some 18 minutes, through innumerable time- and key-signature changes. Not to mention changes in tempo; Debussy’s indications include “Sans rigueur,” “Cédez,” “Serrez,” “Rubato,” “Passionément (sans presser),” “Valse,” “Joyeux,” and “Violent.” The score, which begins with whole-tone clusters, has been seen as foreshadowing serialism; the music, at any rate, is made up of short motifs that flit and flirt and are gone in a heartbeat, and the continuous shiftings of rhythm, color, and balance make the piece as much of a challenge to conduct as Sacre — maybe more.
Jeux can be played as an orchestral showpiece, crisp and delicate. Gilbert presented it as the ballet it was written to be (and never mind that Debussy wrote to the press dissociating himself from Nijinsky’s choreography). His colors, as in En saga, were vivid rather than dusky; the music had a dance pulse, often waltzy, with just enough give that you could imagine bodies moving about the stage, a sigh here, an outburst of laughter there. Toward the end it grew lush, almost orgiastic, as the hormones kicked in, then erotically languid. Back in January 2016, François-Xavier Roth led a masterful Jeux with the BSO; this performance, more extroverted and balletic, was just as wonderful.
Scheherazade.2 was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and got its premiere from that orchestra in March 2015, with Gilbert on the podium and Josefowicz as the soloist. The title is an obvious allusion to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade, as is the four-movement format and the use of the violin to represent the title character. Adams cites his inspiration, however, as “an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris detailing the history of the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade and how this story has evolved over the centuries. The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis. In the old tale Scheherazade is the lucky one who, through her endless inventiveness, is able to save her life. But there is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep on entertaining her warped, murderous husband.”
Storytelling is certainly what keeps Scheherazade alive. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite, the Sultan blusters and Scheherazade beguiles. From time to time he grows restive, but for the most part he’s silent and attentive as she spins out her tales of Sinbad and the Kalender Prince and the Young Prince and Princess and the Festival at Baghdad and the climactic shipwreck. His theme apart, the orchestra is Scheherazade’s friend; it’s through music as well as stories that she soothes the savage Sultan. One would like to think she survives by instructing him as to the true nature of women.
It’s not that Adams shouldn’t be horrified by the plight of women today. But what story is he trying to tell with Scheherazade.2? He’s given the four movements titles: I. “Tale of the Wise Young Woman — Pursuit by the True Believers”; II. “A Long Desire (love scene)”; III. “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards”; IV. “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary.” He describes his heroine as “a woman with grit and personal power,” and for her “love scene,” he says, “who knows . . . perhaps her lover is also a woman?” In the third movement, “she is tried by a court of religious zealots, during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations.” And “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” is “the archetypal dream of any woman importuned by a man or men.”
Not a fairy tale, then, but a horror story, told through the opposition of violin and orchestra. One instrument, the cimbalom, or concert hammered dulcimer, accompanies the violin from time to time, mostly at moments of reflection, or in apparent support during the trial. But it’s not clear what role in Scheherazade.2 the rest of the orchestra has other than representing persecution. I wonder what it would have been like to experience the piece without “benefit” of the movement titles or Adams’s program note.
In the opening movement, you’re left to wonder what makes the young woman “wise.” The violin starts off high and lonely, singing out in an exotic and alien sound world, gradually growing more agitated and stressed. It disappears for 75 seconds while the orchestra murmurs, then returns, a bit calmer, against harp and cimbalom. By the midway point of the movement, however, it’s on the run from the “true believers.” The “love scene” opens with sforzandi chords from the orchestra, as if anticipating forbidden love, and then starry harmonies. The violin doesn’t enter till the five-minute mark, amid hints of Sibelius (The Swan of Tuonela) and Holst (Saturn), and its moody, searing song of love is cut short by a violent reaction from the orchestra in which the lashing of a whip is palpable. The violin survives, chastened; by the end it’s sounding almost bluesy.
The third movement indeed finds the orchestra arguing with itself, battering outbursts alternating with xylophone until the whip brings them to a halt. The violin pleads its case; the orchestra, in its cacophonous response, shows no sign of listening. After what sounds like a sentence is handed down, the violin pronounces what sounds like a curse. In the finale, the violin is on the run again, one step ahead of the whip, till it arrives in what sounds like a shimmering late-Sibelius veil of strings. Even here, there’s no guarantee of safety; the piece ends with the violin rising into the ether like Vaughan Williams’s ascending lark.
At Symphony Hall, Josefowicz seemed more hemmed in by the orchestra than she does in her 2016 recording of Scheherazade.2 with David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. Perhaps that was appropriate: you got a sense of what a loud, complex, threatening world Adams has created. At one point in “Tale of the Wise Young Woman,” he asks that the strings sound like “a seamless web,” but that’s just one of the orchestra’s many plans to harass, subvert, neutralize, and imprison the violin. There was the occasional feeling of sensory overload: Chester Englander’s cimbalom seemed less distinct in this performance than it does on the recording, and though I could see one of the percussionists sliding a cello bow against the edges of the vibraphone bars, I couldn’t make out what I was supposed to hear.
Josefowicz, at least, did answer the question what makes the young woman wise, exploiting as she did the full technical and emotional resources of her instrument. It’s hard to imagine another violinist (Gil Shaham? Hilary Hahn?) bringing this degree of spontaneity and ferocity to the piece. But Josefowicz also underlined the tonal ambivalence of “A Long Desire,” love not just forbidden but difficult under any circumstances. And in the finale, you could hear the violin escaping higher and higher, as if, even after all she’s been through, sanctuary for this woman were one more illusion. Symphony Hall looked hardly half full Thursday — too bad more people didn’t get to witness this astonishing performance.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.