Canny programming very much shone the spotlight on the performance of John Adams recent ‘dramatic symphony’ Scheherazade.2. Composed in 2014 for violinist Leila Josefowicz, it is in reality a hybrid symphonic concerto, most akin to Berlioz's Harold in Italy. Starting from the theme of a woman charming her way out of trouble, as is the basis of the Rimsky-Korsakov work, Adams choses to make his woman a more powerful and assertive character who challenges authority and still finds some resolution. He has described the piece as a ‘feminist symphony’.

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee

How these ideas translate into music is a substantial four movement work, which is a wonderful showpiece for the talents of the soloist. This is vintage Adams, with a power and coherence which has been sometimes lacking in recent works. As usual the influences of his mid-20th century musical heroes are never far away, so there are touches of Prokofiev, Bartók and Sibelius in the violin writing and Ravel and Copland in the orchestral palette.

The long first movement, Tale of the Wise Young Woman — Pursuit by the True Believers, gave Josefowicz the chance to show a rock solid technique which enabled her to encompass a very broad expressive range. Backed up by stunningly accurate and inspired playing from the London Symphony Orchestra, this was the most impressive section of the piece. The slow movement, A Long Desire (Love Scene), starts violently and gradually melts into a beautiful rhapsodic conclusion. Again the soloist had every aspect of this complex movement under her fingertips and it would be hard to imagine anyone else finding so effortlessly the heart of the piece. In the last two movements the same commitment from everyone on stage presented the alternating moods with an admirable aptness. In the final pages the sense of resolution was brief and telling, with Josefowicz saving her gentlest tones till last.

Despite a near perfect performance of an impressive work, there was still the nagging doubt that the music doesn’t come direct from the heart, that it is somehow manufactured by one of the most technically skilled and musically knowledgeable of composers.

And Adams put his musical knowledge and conducting technique to good use in the two performances that opened the concert. Both are understated works not often played in the concert hall; they showed how less can be more, maybe a lesson that could be learnt by Adams the composer. First up, Bartók's 1931 Hungarian Sketches (Magyar képek) for orchestra, SZ 97 show the composer arranging earlier folk inspired piano pieces into little jewels of precise orchestral colours. Every colouristic nuance was picked out by Adams, with the LSO winds particularly on tip top form.  

This was followed by a luminous performance of Stravinsky’s 1948 ballet Orpheus. This work is still often danced to, but not often brought out on its own. The reason for this is that it is a work of dreamlike subtleties, both thematically and rhythmically, and without the visual element, it can seem plain. This could be said of many of the composer’s later ballet scores, where it is possible to see him more interested in the dance potential than producing a dazzling score. However in Adams and the LSO hands, every gently shifting twist and turn was treated with extraordinary refinement and the pungently individual genius of the work was splendidly revealed.