The green-eyed monster clambers onto my shoulder when I’m editing, salivating over concerts my reviewers attend. Rebecca Lentjes described the première of John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 so vividly in her New York review that I wished I’d been there. Contemporary music can be fleeting. How many new works have I heard that never surface again? Not so with Scheherazade.2. Subsequent performances have popped up around the globe and this UK première, given by the LSO conducted by the composer, is the fourth to be reviewed by Bachtrack. Nine further performances are in our concert-finder for 2016 already.

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee
Common to all these performances is the violinist who takes on the role of Scheherazade herself, the remarkable Leila Josefowicz. Like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the work is in four movements, each one given a title, although not intended to tell a specific story. Unlike the Rimsky, where the leader spins a seductive solo to frame orchestral episodes inspired by The Arabian Nights, Adams has the soloist playing throughout his “dramatic symphony” with barely pause to draw breath. In this respect, it’s more like a concerto, but one where the soloist, rather than engaging in a dialogue with the orchestra, plays a running commentary, almost fighting against the orchestra.

The violin is the embodiment of Scheherazade, who narrated tales to amuse her husband, the sultan, and thus save her life. Adams was inspired not by Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous symphonic suite, but by an exhibition about The Arabian Nights at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe, as well as by contemporary news reports. His work reflects the oppression and brutality suffered by women today. “It is not a political piece,” Adams claimed before this performance. It strikes me as a very political piece and justly so. Adams does not shy away from controversial subjects – I witnessed the protests against his opera The Death of Klinghoffer outside The Met last year – and describes Scheherazade’s oppressors as “True Believers” and “Men with Beards, pointing fingers at religious fanatics in the Middle East.

There is no perfumed orientalism in Adams’ music. Indeed, there was greater glittery exoticism in Ravel’s Mother Goose before the interval – an indulgent performance where Adams wallowed in the orchestral sonorities at the expense of narrative. Adams evokes the East in his own composition through the almost hyperactive use of a cimbalom, hammering away in front of the woodwind section. The orchestra acts as Scheherazade’s judge and oppressor via savage double basses, angry brass and col legno strings. There is much beauty too, particularly in the Love Scene second movement where the stabbing chords soon give way to billowing flutes, silky strings and bowed glockenspiel. Josefowicz gave an heroic, fearless performance, often standing tall, assuming a proud stance, turning to the orchestra to argue her case. A defiant stare often accompanied her defiant bowing. Yet the response to her third movement aggressors was one of aching sweetness. If anything, the finale needs a greater sense of repose as our heroine reaches sanctuary, the work ending too abruptly with the violin line almost cut-off mid-sentence.

Scheherazade.2 is a work that absolutely deserves to join the standard repertory. The test will come when the next violinist takes on Josefowicz’s storyteller role and makes it her – or his – own.