‘A Scheherazade Thanksgiving’ promises a world of adventure
This weekend, the Houston Symphony is offering the trip of a lifetime, and there’s no need to pack a suitcase.
Sail through crashing seas with Sinbad, waltz alongside the budding romance of two young royals and dance to the sprightly melody of a festival in Baghdad in the symphony’s “A Scheherazade Thanksgiving” at Jones Hall. The concert features Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” alongside an interpretation of Shostakovich’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” by Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes.
“Both pieces are extremely colorful and emotionally thrilling,” Ehnes said. They also are both written by Russian composers, but while the violin concerto is more abstract, he explained, “Scheherazade” is vividly pictorial.
Written in the late 1800s, the four-movement symphonic suite is inspired by a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age known as “The Thousand and One Nights.” Also called “The Arabian Nights,” the stories are pieces to a larger puzzle - a ploy by Scheherazade, who would become the legendary Persian queen, to escape the sultan’s murderous rampage.
Angered by his wife’s betrayal, the untrusting King Shahryar vowed to kill a new wife each day. In an act of heroism, Scheherazade married the sultan, and for 1,001 nights, she would begin to tell him a riveting story, her voice represented by the sweet, pure sound of a solo violin. From Aladdin to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, she ended every tale with a cliffhanger that she would not resolve until the following night. The anticipation she provoked not only saved her life, it ultimately healed the king’s heart.
The storyline behind the collection of folktales greatly contributes to the music’s ability to spark an imaginative and personal response from each listener, but the music itself sets a particular mood, even if one is unaware of the underlying motivation.
A highly charged crescendo can immediately shift a calming tune into one of turbulent anxiety, triggering the heart to race a little faster and the palms to sweat. It’s the sound of waves as they collide into cliffs; their crests plunging back toward the sea and rocking Sinbad’s ship from one direction to the next.
“People hear music in different ways,” said Ehnes, who first performed with the Houston Symphony about 20 years ago and has returned every two or three years since. “My experience with music is not visual, but my wife’s often is.”
They both, however, find music to be emotionally transporting. The “heart” of the piece, for Ehnes, is the large cadenza that links the last two sections. “It is a journey of absolutely searing intensity and leads to the catharsis of the final movement.”
Whether or not a score is connected to a story, the music is not intended to be an exact translation of its inspiration, Ehnes said. It is supposed to ooze pathos, adding to and deepening its emotional impact.
Shostakovich’s violin concerto does just that. “It has a tremendous range of expression, from the most intimate to the most extroverted, and I think has a very special and profound impact upon the listener,” Ehnes said.
The powerful and ominous piece was written for Russian-Jewish virtuoso David Oistrakh during the brutal reign of Stalin. Due to the oppressive political climate, however, the composer withheld it for years. The piece finally premiered in 1955 with the Leningrad Philharmonic.
“It is so difficult to talk or write about the emotional impact of music,” Ehnes said. “If one could use words to convey the same emotions and ideas, we wouldn’t need music in the first place.”