John Adams is a composer who likes to fill his sound field. The three works by Adams in last night's concert at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw were very different from each other, but all shared his characteristic thickness of sound: within the orchestra, the lines of individual players are subdued underneath lush textures and insistent rhythms. The hour long concert came within the auspices of the “AAA festival,” a week-long focus on arts as they relate to current affairs (the first “A” stands for “Actueel,” the Dutch for “current”). It was conducted by Adams himself, the occasion being the Netherlands première of Scheherazade.2, his “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra”, first played in New York last year.

John Adams © Margaretta Mitchell
John Adams
© Margaretta Mitchell
The first of two curtain-raisers was Tromba lontana. The work opens with a shimmering texture, and as the sound thickens out, we hear the call of a distant trumpet, the player standing high to the left of the orchestra. Soon, a second trumpet answers, standing opposite on the far right, and we hear a delicate, distant conversation between the two until the final diminuendo.

A general shuffling around of large numbers of percussionists indicated that the mood of our second work was going to be very different. Short ride in a fast machine is a true flight of fancy, with all the fun of a high speed chase. While percussion is generally at the front of things, it's the humble woodblock which is prominent, giving the rhythmic cues for a lot of what's to follow. There are some great brass parts, especially for the trombone section, approaching the tailgating style of big band jazz. You could tell that this work is one of Adams' favourites from the impish grin on his face as he turned at the end to accept the applause.

Adams took the microphone to introduce Scheherazade.2 and its soloist, Leila Josefowicz, for whom the work was written. While Short ride was the fun part of the evening, Adams is utterly serious about Scheherazade.2, whose theme is the oppression of women within extremely religious societies. There's no lush orientalism here: Adams is subverting the Thousand and One Nights rather than updating it, struck by the casual brutality against women that pervades the stories. This Scheherazade mirrors her original only in being a strong, wise, and beautiful woman in mortal danger: gone is the quiet of the harem and the ultimate nobility of Shahryar. The back-story is of a woman denounced by the religious authorities (the “True believers” and the “Men with Beards”) who is condemned by them but ultimately escapes and achieves sanctuary.

From the first movement which introduces his heroine, Adams' music maintains a constant sense of threat: underneath the thick texture, one or other of the instruments constantly sounds a note of warning. The instrument that catches the ear is the hammer dulcimer: perhaps because we're not so used to it in orchestral scores, its contribution to the orchestral timbre is always notable. Broken rhythms indicate the squabbling of the Men with Beards, adding a sarcastic touch of humour to proceedings. Josefowicz played the violin part with elegance and commitment, but for much of the first and third movements, she struggled to be heard clearly: the thickness of orchestration leaves little space for the soloist to breathe. Since the soloist represents Scheherazade and the orchestra her oppressors, this is very much a work “for violin against orchestra” and often, the orchestra's violence prevailed over the violin's calm. In the third movement in particular, there were some huge orchestral climaxes, no doubt indicating the moments when Scheherazade is judged. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra played these expertly, truly raising the roof of the hall.

We heard Josefowicz at her best in the slow second movement and the gentle ending. The second featured a sublime moment at the close of its cadenza, with a lovely violin line merging into some excellent legato from the orchestra, and the closing minutes of the work, in which Scheherazade finds sanctuary, were elegiacally beautiful.

Can a purely instrumental work contribute to political debate? I'm not sure, but I can't help admiring the courage, sincerity and energy which Adams has put into the work, as well as the understated virtuosity with which the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are able to perform it. A fascinating evening.