According to the program notes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a piece that is well-known and even overfamiliar, especially to those a generation or two older than me. It is an indication of my lack of exposure that even after all these years of listening to Western classical music, Friday night was the first time I heard the piece. Given how much I like Polovtsian Dances, which I have sung once, it is perhaps no suprise that I enjoyed Scheherazade as much as I did. The music carried me off to faraway lands.
One reason I chose the “even-numbered” concerts for my half of the season-subscription (rather than the “odd-numbered” ones) was because of the name Scheherazade. Symphonie Fantastique was another reason, though “even-numbered” also meant missing out on some good things — Beethoven’s Pastoral, for instance. The Berlioz was great too, but this latest concert really vindicated my choice.
The name Scheherazade evokes the entire magical universe of The Arabian Nights in the mind, and so does Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. By turns lyrical and forceful, the music paints as vivid a picture as the stories. Whirling dervishes, angry kings, wise princesses and dramatic storms are portrayed, but so is an over-arching sense of elusive mystery. The four movements have names based on themes of the Arabian nights rather than the usual Prelude, Finale etc. The notes say that the composer was wary about the listener being overly influenced by the names of the movements, and even withdrew them temporarily. He needn’t have worried. His goal of creating an Oriental sound palette that calls to mind wondrous fairy-tales from distant and exotic realms is utterly successful, no matter what the names of the movements.
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra was in fine form too, under the baton of guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen. Jeff Thayer, principal violin, was superbly sensitive playing Scheherazade’s signature tune, as were the woodwinds and the percussion. (Softly played percussion rocks!) The harpist did very well too — it was the sort of piece where the harp is critical.
The program opened with Florence Price’s Mississippi River Suite — the first major piece by the first major African-American female composer. The piece creates all the sounds one might hear on that river. It is apparently not performed often, but I felt it should be. The sounds of water, birds and parties on boats created as much of an atmosphere as Scheherazade did post-intermission.
Ably standing alongside Price and Scheherazade, Ann-Mei Chen completed the female triumvirate. She brought forth from the musicians energy and delicacy, as per the demands of the music, and I enjoyed her body language. Her manner of bringing out the top note at the end of lyrical lines by doing a high ‘plink’ movement with her left index finger and thumb was effective, as were her large full-body gestures during the final movement of Scheherazade. Her manner of miming the musician’s movement to indicate who she was singling out for applause was also memorable. I would be happy to attend more concerts conducted by her in the future.
The middle piece was a Horn concerto by Richard Strauss. Benjamin Jaber, the principal horn, was the soloist. It was a piece that received genuine applause, but the night was easily stolen by Rimsky-Korsakov. The audience stood up at the end, yelling “ooo” to express pleasure and admiration, which was exactly what the piece deserved.