Conductors, by nature, put themselves in conversation with the works they choose to perform. That relationship takes on an extra dimension when the conductor is also a composer. Such was the case when John Adams led the Philadelphia Orchestra in an evening that included his “dramatic symphony” Scheherazade.2 alongside works by Ravel and Stravinsky.

Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee

A canny listener could spot allusions the contemporary maestro has made in his own corpus to the preceding pieces. The agitated pizzicato strings in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, as well as the overall nod to a mythical Chinese sound world in Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, call to mind Nixon in China, arguably Adams’ most enduring composition. The litany of repeated ideas embedded in the 20-minute Stravinsky symphonic poem also suggest Adams’ particular brand of minimalism.

In both works, which comprised the first half of a two-hour program, Adams drew a rich and appealing sound from the orchestra. He did so with what appear to be rudimentary conducting skills. His presence on the podium is almost metronomic – he rarely cues and he beats time in a correct, if not particularly expressive, manner. Still, the results speak for themselves and it was a pleasure to hear the finely wrought details Adams was able to draw out. The Stravinsky especially benefited from fine playing by Davyd Booth on the celesta and Jeffrey Khaner on the flute.

Adams did not prove more animated as a performer when leading his own Scheherazade.2, which filled the entire second half of the evening at nearly an hour’s length. Luckily, he had violinist Leila Josefowicz on hand to strike the necessary sparks. A specialist in contemporary music, Josefowicz premiered the work in 2015 and she brought to bear a sovereign understanding of the composer’s goals to her performance.

In remarks from the stage, Adams described his impetus to write Scheherazade.2 as a corrective for the way the title woman was stripped of agency in One Thousand and One Nights – and how that represented the silencing of women across eras. With her firm tone and indefatigable stamina, Josefowicz certainly gave the impression of a woman inserting herself into the narrative and asserting her own power. Her cleanly produced solo lines soared above the orchestral forces, even at their most bombastic, and she never sacrificed expressiveness for sheer volume. In the final movement, called “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary,” she conveyed the strength of a woman overthrowing the shackles of a repressive society.

The title of Adams’ piece evokes Rimsky-Korsakov, and his insistence on calling it a dramatic symphony harkens back to Berlioz. To my ears, the work’s musical signposts did not clearly engage with those of the Russian master and it lacked an overall coherence that would allow it to stand on the same ground as Harold en Italie or Romeo et Juliette. I also wonder how the long composition would land in the hands of a soloist who lacks Josefowicz’s virtuosity.

Luckily, that is a question for another day. Josefowicz’s playing is so assured, you could listen to it for 1,001 nights and never tire.