The new Scheherazade violin concerto dedicated to strong women
Gender inequality and the oppression of women are hot topics. Media outlets both local and national teem with stories of injustice and tyranny, highlighting the difficult plights of women around the globe. Inspired by images of oppressed women that he saw in the news, American composer John Adams wanted to write a piece about a different kind of woman—a woman who, despite the hardships of an oppressive and male-dominated environment, overcame her adversaries. Adams started to imagine Scheherazade.2, a sequel of sorts to Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Scheherazade, which depicts the legend of a captive Arabian princess who tells a story for 1,001 nights in order to save her life.
In the Rimsky-Korsakov work, the concertmaster plays prominent solos as well as the role of the Arabian princess. Adams imagined his new piece as a violin concerto, and he had exactly one violinist in mind: his close friend and colleague Leila Josefowicz, who has been a champion of his work for more than a decade, and who has performed his first violin concerto more than 100 times. This new concerto was a story for her—but also, in a certain sense, about her.
I caught up with the 37-year-old Josefowicz directly after the March 26–28 world premiere performances of Scheherazade.2, which she performed with captivating intensity, mesmerizing drama, and astounding conviction with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Your performance Saturday night [March 28] was amazing. This is not a work for the fainthearted! How is this piece technically different from John Adams’ other violin concertos?
Oh, wow, thanks. I’m still reeling, honestly. It was a huge expenditure of energy—utterly exhausting and incredibly exhilarating—a really wild ride. I thought Alan [Gilbert] was absolutely incredible. I would not have been able to do the job that I did without him. It was an amazing collaboration and he really put all of himself into it—he was able to be an amazing leader and also an amazing accompanist. It’s going to take me a long time to process [these performances]. I got the first sketches of the piece from John on New Year’s Eve 2013, and this piece is basically all I thought about for a year—I had a baby last year, too, and it was just the baby and the piece, and that’s all I thought about the whole year.
In terms of John’s other pieces—well, he’s written the 1993 Violin Concerto and [the 2003] The Dharma at Big Sur for electric violin. But this piece—the format and the idea behind it could not be more different from anything else he’s written—if anything, it reminds me of his operatic works. He always knew he was going to call it Scheherazade.2, but then later added the descriptor “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” which is exactly what it is. No other piece has been called this, and it changes the expectations of how it is heard and approached. The orchestral interludes are so much bigger than in other violin concertos—they are on a bigger scale, with bigger gestures—and they demand more emotional output from the orchestra. And, of course, it’s a symphony length. Everything in the piece is about the story and the ideas behind it—it’s about this woman, and the brutality happening to her, and her battle against it. Everything is connected to that central theme. There aren’t any technical gymnastics that are in the piece just for its own sake—everything serves the narrative. There are some passages that are very technically demanding, but I was so concerned with how it related to the story that the technicalities took a backseat. The emotion required to pull off this piece demands a player who can get past the technical part and focus on the emotional, although the person also has to be wired to take emotional risks. I think it’s some of John’s very, very best writing.
You’ve worked often with John Adams and have a close relationship with him. How did you first meet and how did your relationship develop?
I learned his first violin concerto almost on a private whim—it was my first major new work written by a living composer. Before that, I had not been happy with my state of being—I was playing a lot of concerts and pretty standard rep, but I didn’t feel like I owned any of the pieces the way that I wanted to. I felt that my level of creativity was hitting a glass ceiling. I longed for a more human connection—a living person whom I could connect with. John came to my first performance and then it was like wildfire—suddenly we had many dates lined up with him conducting and me playing, and it was the beginning of this incredible friendship. Now we’ve been all around the world together. I’ve played both of his violin concertos many, many times. Our families know each other, all the kids, we all love each other—I feel really blessed.
And that’s one of the most amazing things about this piece—it’s all about male brutality and the issues surrounding that, but John knows a lot of my own story and the issues that I’ve had with these things as well. Echoed within the broader story and issues in the piece—the Scheherazade story and the oppression of women around the world—is my story, too. It’s all knit together in an incredible way.
What was your reaction when John first told you about his idea for this piece? Did you feel from the beginning that he was writing a piece that was about you as much as it was for you?
Well, it was all very tongue-in-cheek when we were first talking about it and he was first writing it. He didn’t say, “I’m writing a piece about a strong woman and it’s about you.” It was, “What I’m doing is very special and very relevant and it’s about a woman.”
It was clear to him before it was clear to me, of course—he’s just very understated. He’s very quiet about his own ideas. But as I discovered the piece more and more, I realized that it was about me. Learning it, discovering layer upon layer of the piece, and the story and my story embedded within it was so wild! And now, afterward, I’m still processing. The intensity of the experience will always be huge for me.
What was your learning process like?
I studied the piece in so many different ways—first getting the basic framework of the movements and how they interlock, and then going into smaller and smaller detail and building her character. I felt like it was really a role for me, and that I needed to do that—get into her character, this woman. I went through the whole piece, asking, “What does this phrase mean for her?” like an actor would. I did so much internal, emotional research—trying to figure her out, and what each phrase and experience in the piece meant for her. I went through various phases of thinking about women who have been oppressed in different ways—the girl with the dragon tattoo, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I—women who have stood up to men and then been condemned. I was thinking about how I can make the trauma and drama of these women real through the music. When I was performing I felt like I was channeling her character because I had really worked to understand her.
How do you interpret the ending?
It’s definitely complicated. The beauty is in the vagueness. You don’t leave with a feeling of victory. There’s a sense of accomplishment, but it doesn’t quite resolve. I started off surer about the ending, and as I got deeper into the piece, I realized how the writing is also unresolved—the last phrase is filled with pungency and half of the notes are tritones. It’s not a victory.
There’s a feeling of overwhelming emotion. And that’s part of the pain and the struggle of the piece—that’s what this music is trying to say. It’s a fight, a journey, a process. There’s a lot of struggle and pain still left—and that’s real. And that’s partly why the topic of this piece is so powerful—these issues are highly controversial, not easily resolvable—and they will be for a very long time. The piece raises questions. Any other ending would be too one-dimensional.
What would you tell someone before they heard this piece for the first time?
Get ready! It’s not a light work. It’s big stuff, intensity at its max. This piece is about struggle, and you will feel that when you listen to it. There is a bigger message in the piece than just the music itself. I don’t want to put a story into people’s heads—there’s no wrong story in this, and there’s not one story. Not one way to listen to it. It’s a brainstorm, an incredible sea of thoughts around this subject of women and oppression and brutality and struggle and dominance and strength. But if you were to talk to me in two years, I could be saying something completely different. I know I am still figuring it out—but the intensity will always be huge.
What Leila Josefowicz Plays
VIOLIN “I’m playing a Sam Zygmuntowicz violin made in 2013. I feel so comfortable on it; he set it up perfectly for me. We did a lot of test runs over the years and I told him very specifically what I liked and didn’t like about each one. I feel so lucky to be so happy with a violin that I own. Owning an amazing old instrument is financially out of just about everyone’s reach—and it’s also out of our control, which is such a huge burden. I absolutely love this violin. I’m a woman of today and the music of today—and I’m happy that I’m playing an instrument of today.”
STRINGS “I am endorsed by Pirastro, so I use their strings 99 percent of the time.”
BOWS “I have one amazing old French bow—a Pajeot, with a really amazing sound, but it’s good for more intimate music. This week I was playing one of Isaac Salchow’s bows, a really fantastic bow. I have three modern bows and the French. I’m not a finicky person and I don’t like fussing with equipment—I want to be comfortable and then forget about it.”