John Adams has been known to draw inspiration from American writers—Walt Whitman, E. Annie Proulx—for his works, but his most recent composition, Scheherazade.2, is presented as a musical sequel of sorts to the sprawling Middle Eastern collection One Thousand and One Nights. Mr Adams explained at the piece’s world première on Thursday that he had been rereading the Nights and was “shocked by how casual the brutality towards women was”, but also by how prevalent this brutality is even now, in the Middle East, in India, and “even here, on Rush Limbaugh”. So his work, a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, offers an updated Scheherazade, an empowered woman here embodied by Leila Josefowicz on the violin. “She’s utterly fearless,” Mr Adams said, “Words fail. That’s why I’m a composer.”

Leila Josefowicz performing <i>Scheherazade.2</i> © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz performing Scheherazade.2
© Chris Lee

Right, but he’s also a composer who works with words. And the notes of Scheherazade.2—all 40 minutes of them—are dripping with narrative tension and momentum. The love scene of the second movement is marked by drawn-out, reiterated sforzandi chords, then odd-numbered groups of notes (triplets, groups of five), then prolonged trills in the strings, and instructions from Mr Adams including “floating” and “grave”. The ponderous swells of sound evoked a night of sleeping and waking, of meditation and indecision, of erotic oscillations and bouts of transcendence. During the first movement pursuit, the programmatic music vacillated in scary swarms, the instruments like footsteps racing up and down staircases; during the third movement’s rage it simmered and sputtered with anger, overboiling in startling bursts of volume. Mr Adams proved an effective storyteller right up to the fourth and final movement’s flight to freedom and fading rallentando.

The influence of words and storytelling, as well as the formal influences of Rimsky-Korsakov and Berlioz, is apparent from Mr Adams’s dense score, marked with performance instructions ranging from the typical – energico, a tempo – to very specific and imagistic, as with the first movement’s indication that the “strings should sound like one seamless web”. The concept of webs being threaded and woven is crucial to Scheherazade.2, which broods throughout with a cinematic yet unpredictable intensity. The textures employed, particularly that of the cimbalom front and center and the string sections looming in and out, were new territory for the usually predictable Mr Adams, with ideas slipping in that didn’t feel bound to temporality or place. Instead, the thrumming cimbalom patterns and the angular, powerful violin delivery from Ms Josefowicz threaded their way through and around the web of the orchestra the same way Scheherazade spins her thousand and one stories.

Perhaps picking up on Ms Josefowicz's awe-inspiring strength and determination, Alan Gilbert seemed more confident than he has been in recent months, leading the New York Philharmonic in the most energetic and convincing performance I’ve witnessed this season. This was also true during the first half of the program, which consisted of two other heavily programmatic pieces: Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Lyadov, a born procrastinator who frequently played hookey from Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition classes, wrote a handful of brief program pieces before his eventual illness and death. The Philharmonic’s performance of The Enchanted Lake was delicate and beautiful, featuring low bass melodies and violins fluttering florally above them. The taut softness was maintained throughout, with occasional pings and dings from the percussion.

Petrushka, on the other hand, exploded from the first with palpable joy and biting bitonality. Perhaps the members of the Philharmonic were reliving their 2013 season finale “A Dancer’s Dream”, an updated version of Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s collaboration about an unhappy puppet come to life, in which the musicians wore fur hats while choreography and animation played out around them. In the absence of ballerinas and multimedia, this performance felt a little less lively, with occasional pockets of stodginess. Overall, however, the interpretation was varied and colorful in its range and scope, with different tempi dancing around each other in a shocking swirl of twinkling interjections, from the effortless flute solo to the percussive hopping of the violins. The chords were at one moment clay crayons streaking across paper and the next watercolors dappling a canvas in rich thudding strokes from the cellos, who sounded fabulous all evening.

As impressed as I was by this performance from the Philharmonic and particularly by Mr Adams’s compositional achievement, I couldn’t help feeling a little unsettled by certain aspects – such as the racist undercurrent during the dramatic symphony’s third movement, “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards”, or troubling mathematical error of the title Scheherazade.2 itself, which seems to suggest not a sequel but 0.2 of a person, a reminder that women make on average 20% less than men and that the ratio of most arts institutions’ programming is 80% men and 20% women (on a good day). So while it was great to see Ms Josefowicz brandishing her violin not just as a wordless voice for women but almost as a weapon of female empowerment, it seems we still have a long way to go before not only the harrowing experiences of women, but the compositional voices of women, can be given their fair artistic weight. Ultimately, though, 0.2 is still better than zero.