Conductor: John Adams
Adams: Harmonielehre for Orchestra
Adams: Scheherazade.2, Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra - Leila Josefowicz
Some weeks are decidedly more memorable than others, and the third one of September 2016 shall remain solidly imprinted in my memory as I got to revel in the ultimate Mahlerian experience courtesy of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on Wednesday night and a flawless US-German collaboration with John Adams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic ─ and his unofficial muse Leila Josefowicz in one piece ─ in two compositions of his in Berlin on Saturday night. So much music, so little time!
So never mind the six-hour train ride and the lack of sleep. Before I knew it, I found myself listening to another prestigious orchestra in another perfectly sized, acoustically blessed and visually attractive concert hall on a deliciously crisp September evening in Northern Europe. I could have hardly expected a more terrific welcome package for my long-overdue return to Berlin.
Taking its name from Arnold Schoenberg's textbook on harmony, Harmonielehre probably sounded as fresh on Saturday night as it did when it was first released 30 years ago. After unapologetically opening full speed ahead, the three electrifying movements quickly developed from a Minimalist base and kept on going unabated, seemingly driven by an unstoppable pulse and creating a work remarkable for its ambition, scope and impact. Performed by one of the premier ensembles in the world, this rhythmically complex, wildly modern ─ and still hopelessly late Romantic ─ extended romp came out sophisticated and fun.
If, all things considered, Harmonielehre has the typical attributes of a bona fide symphony, Scheherazade.2 can also be called, for all purposes, a violin concerto. I had totally enjoyed the performance of it by the New York Philharmonic in the Avery Fisher Hall a couple of seasons ago, and I was therefore very much looking forward to hearing it again on the occasion of its German premiere. Inspired by an exhibition about One Thousand and One Nights that he had seen at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, John Adams created Scheherazade.2, a musical piece starring a modernized version of the exotic queen that had sounded beautiful and empowering, musically rich and easily accessible, to my spell-bound ears.
Leila Josefowicz, a violinist I would gladly go hear anywhere in the world, has brilliantly inhabited the composition written for her from the very beginning, making it simply impossible for me at least to imagine anyone else impersonating the fearless and uncompromising title character. And sure enough, there she was again, in Berlin this time, oozing feminine charm and unbending strength, her violin expertly spooling out stunning lyrical lines and assertively standing up for her rights.
The orchestra responded to John Adams' deeply informed conducting with impressive commitment, whether providing a gorgeous background for a love scene or powerfully unleashing the self-righteous anger of the "Men with Beards". Throughout the performance, the complex textures came out intensely alive in all their myriads of details, and the few vaguely random moments all eventually became part of a truly compelling whole. It was good to be back in such company.