It seems likely that in the program Alan Gilbert brought to the BSO this weekend, he selected Debussy and Sibelius works to frame John Adams’s, which inherits significantly from them. However, it turned out that there’s was something more interesting going on, as all the works lived in an unstable relationship with the idea of “program” music.
Now, I know that Sibelius’ En Saga has no program, and that Sibelius went to great lengths to insist on that fact. He wrote En Saga in 1892, shortly after the premiere of the massive Kullervo, which depicted scenes from the Kalevala. En Saga didn’t appear before an audience for ten years, by which time Sibelius had significantly tightened and shortened it. No plausible program has been attached to it, but the piece calls out for one. It has Sibelius’ characteristic merits: surprising orchestral colors, both gorgeous and threatening, and melodies that stick hard in one’s memory. These colors and melodies mix and march past for nearly 20 minutes, but they lack that ineffable internal logic that makes his Violin Concerto or Fifth Symphony compelling and dramatic. It has an emptiness to its development that begs for something to justify it. En Saga is probably the most generic title one could give to a Nordic tone poem, and listeners may be forgiven if they struggle to create a story that could make sense of the many transitions from tune to tune. In Gilbert’s hands the BSO made the most of Sibelius’s craft. The work opens with a mysterious and ghostly murmuring in muted strings that a few moments later divides across the sections. The sound was shimmering and elusive, and with the cellos located on the inside of the orchestra it was even visually compelling, with bows rocking rapidly back and forth across the width of the stage. Gilbert encouraged extremes of tempo and dynamics, including a pianissimo that threatened to flicker out of audibility. His conducting included moments of fairly heavy-duty physicality; this, combined with some density and harshness in the brass-heavy tuttis suggested that perhaps the orchestra and he needed some time to come to agreement. But they got there. Sibelius said that “in no other work have I revealed myself so completely.” This seems hard to believe during most of En Saga, but then, at the very end of the work, when all of the business drops away a long, wandering clarinet solo appears. Gilbert and principal clarinet Thomas Martin stepped outside of time at this moment. Emotionally reserved, but melancholy and mournful, it felt as if the quarter hour of music preceding this existed only so that this final moment would stand out in its quiet.
How unfair to Sibelius to follow En Saga with Debussy’s poème dansé. The ballet Jeux’s program (or scenario) is almost ridiculously superfluous: a man and two women play tennis, and with each other. The Dover score (available at IMSLP) includes the stage directions in English (“A young man, in tennis dress, holding his racket high, leaps across the stage…”). I invite you to see if there is any significant connection between the scenario and the music. I hear none, and I think Debussy wrote none, save perhaps for the little comic dribble at the end that evokes the final bounces of a ball. My colleague at BMInt, Mark DeVoto, has already written perceptively about how Jeux (HERE), is a “kaleidoscopic succession of ideas in short regular phrases.” The regular parade of melodies and textures in En Saga are also a succession of ideas, but Debussy’s more complex and fleeting ideas constantly engage, though the listener may struggle to keep up with the restless inventiveness of the score’s chanbeable tempos and rhythms, it pulls one along from moment to moment through its machinations. Gilbert’s clear and crystalline reading made this difficult piece as comprehensible as possible, allowing its idiosyncratic logic to unfold in arcs that felt like slow breathing. Perhaps to achieve this effect, tempos were perhaps just a little stiff and controlled: one moved clearly from station to station rather than flowing one to the next.
John Adams’ Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra”, is a massive, 48-minute-long work that arrives with a great deal of text to tell the listener what is happening. There’s the title, of course, and then the movement descriptions:
1. Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers
2. A Long Desire (Love Scene)
3. Scheherazade and the Men with Beards [Doctrinal disputes: the men with beards argue among themselves — The judgment — Scheherazade’s appeal — The condemnation]
4. Escape, Flight, Sanctuary
The full page of commentary by Adams would not surprise anyone who parses the above and sees just what the composer is getting at.
Adams wrote Scheherazade.2 in 2014 for Leila Josefowicz, who was also the soloist this weekend. She gave a performance of white-hot intensity and passion, often nearly stamping on stage in the more emphatic sections, and at times emerging from a stretch of incredible passagework to fix the audience with an intimidating, thousand-foot stare. Josefowicz’s ferocity is easily interpretable as Scheherazade’s, and the occasionally clumsy third movement, with its car-horn climaxes and confrontational musical dialog, tracks its description quite precisely.
But both more and less goes on in Scheherazade.2. Adams’s style has evolved far beyond the motoric late-minimalist gestures of Nixon in China. One might hunt in vain for an ostinato for long stretches here. Instead, in the first movement we have the violin flinging confrontational material into the orchestra — melodies with large gaps contrasted frantically fast and violent runs filled with double-stops — and the orchestra reacts and transforms that material, throwing it back around the soloist. The orchestra is frequently quite loud, but thanks to Gilbert’s care and Josefowicz’s power she was almost never covered: instead, the orchestral sound crowded around her while leaving her audible. In its constant evolution of material, it recalled the mechanisms of Jeux, but where Jeux was all gossamer floating, here we had grinding and sharp elbows. The second movement started out as a contrast, and sounded like a tribute to, or a competition with, the Messiaen of the Turangalîla Symphony. In the opening minutes by the orchestra alone, the strings evoked the same gauzy, soft-edged quality of the slow movements of the Messiaen. However, this love scene still has plenty of combat in it, which also called to mind the Frenchman’s own violent moments. However, Adams brings an asymmetry and an industrial timbre that is all his own, fast moving winds and splattering, unexpected spikes of sound in the brass. The final movement evolved similarly to the first, perhaps a bit too similarly given the length of the piece, but with lesser tension, and with a brief epilogue that afforded the violin and the orchestra their one moment of calm, but which didn’t last long enough to give a sense of rest. We had come to the end of the piece, but still pent-up energy still lingered in the air. Josefowicz’s take emphasized strength and indefatigability; if lyricism were in short supply, that really wasn’t the point. In Gilbert’s hands the orchestra showed plenty of fight, never backing down but also never suffocating the soloist. Throughout the night I missed a little of the brilliance in the winds and brass that Andris Nelsons can’t seem to stop producing, but it was a handsome sound in any case.
We are living in a time where stories of women fighting against power have particular resonance, and certainly the program of Scheherazade.2 speaks to our moment: the spectacle of Josefwicz’s heroism can’t help resonate. But ultimately, the program was almost unnecessary. Only the third movement needed the connection to Scheherazade’s feminist tale, and there only to justify the “drama” enacted in the orchestra. But even there, in the best moment of the movement — the sour epigrammatic utterance given by the violin at the very end — didn’t require a narrative to achieve its effect. One could go picking moments and mapping them to the 1001, but if there’s one thing Scheherazade.2 is unlike, it is its Rimsky-Korsakov namesake. This is tightly coiled, closely and relentlessly argued work that places a strong, characteristic and challenging voice in opposition to the huge machinery of the world around it, a conflict which ends neither in triumph or defeat. That’s universal enough to transcend any programmatic device.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.