John Adams, arguably one of America's most famous contemporary composers, was both conductor and composer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He is a skilled and charming speaker, addressing the audience before the start of the program, he was both concise and humorous.

Liadov's The Enchanted Lake is a pleasant but rather insubstantial work. The ASO strings had the right shimmer and its woodwinds provided a nice warm glow, all of which was appropriate for this bit of impressionistic froth.

John Adams © Deborah O'Grady
John Adams
© Deborah O'Grady

Respighi Pines is a blockbuster work that shows off the power and color of a full symphony orchestra, while also pleasing most listeners. Four sections comprise the work, each describing various scenes in Rome. “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” describes a busy square in the Eternal City, a three-minute fanfare introduction that showcases the entire orchestra. The ASO showed great ensemble and precision. In “The Pines Near a Catacomb”Adams chose a slower than usual tempo, underscoring the music's eeriness and hymn-like quality. Clarinet and English horn gave suavely articulated performances in“The Pines of the Janiculum”, but the off-stage trumpet solo was slightly behind Mr Adams' beat. The final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way”, is one long crescendo leading to a raucous conclusion. Adams' paid careful attention to the dynamics so that the orchestra did not become too forte too soon. Trumpets and trombones helped pump up the volume, but unfortunately the trombonists drifted ever so slightly on pitch. After the last note of Pini, Adams seemed  delighted, asked Laura Ardan, principal clarinet, and Emily Burbach, English horn, to receive their share of the applause.

After the intermission, Mr Adams spoke to the audience about his new composition  Scheherazde.2. He took his inspiration from an exhibit at the Arab World Institute in Paris about the stories in the West and South Asian-inspired One Thousand and One Nights. As he did at the work's New York première, Adams said that he was struck by the violence toward women depicted in these fables, but also the reality of such violence throughout history. This was the impetus for his new take on the fable in which a king marries and daily kills each new wife, save for Scheherazade, who avoids death night-after-night by telling the king the beginning of an intriguing stories only to delay telling the ending until the next. This story also inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to pen his Scheherazade. Adams concluded with hearty thanks to Leila Josefowicz for her support of his music and that of other contemporary composers.

Scheherazade.2 is divided into five sections, each depicting the story of an every-woman who is bullied, rebuked, abandoned and otherwise harassed for her outspokenness in a male-dominated culture. The violin is the woman and the orchestra embodies the oppressors. The section titles clearly indicate the intended meaning of the section, but they leave little for listeners to glean on their own. The first section is titled “Tale of the Wise Young Woman-Pursuit by the True Believers” and it does not take a lot of imagination to hear the violin solo and the orchestra portraying a tense confrontation between the woman and a group of  men angrily intimidating her. The second section, “A Long Desire (Love Scene)”, begins again with agitated sounds in the full orchestra, followed by some of the only lyrical music in the piece. The third movement, “Scheherazade and the Men in Beards”, takes up where the first section left off, with the percussion playing a bigger role in the back-and-forth. Every time the violin makes a point, the strings retort derisively and menacingly. The final section “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” again features the percussion accentuating the solo violin's agitation and panic, but this finally resolves with the solo violin playing almost serene music, accompanied by subdued passages from the strings. The work is scored for a very large orchestra, with a panoply of percussion. A not-often-heard cimbalom is featured, although it is often drowned out by the orchestra. Ms Josefowicz was technically brilliant, playing the nearly 45-minute solo part from memory and her violin's voice was never overwhelmed by the tumult in the music.

In a not so subtle way, Scheherazade .2 addresses violence against and the second-class status of women throughout history. It plows no new ground for Mr Adams as a composer but it does makes an important statement about patriarchal oppression. The ASO performed admirably throughout the entire program and it seemed energized by John Adams' conducting and compositional skills.