Jorge Luis Borges once observed that the basic problem facing translators of “The Arabian Nights” is how to entertain contemporary audiences with pulp fictions from the medieval Islamic world.
That problem surfaced in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s fascinating concert at Strathmore on Saturday night. Led by Music Director Marin Alsop, the program offered two contrasting musical portraits — one classic and one modern — of Scheherazade, the beguiling narrator of these exotic and fantastical tales. The resulting juxtaposition revealed the ways in which translations, whether literary or musical, are rooted in their time and place, even as the source material can be endlessly malleable.
The American composer John Adams’s captivating “Scheherazade.2” is billed as a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra.” Premiered in 2015, this ambitious, 45-minute work is Adams’s modern take on the legend. Adams has said that the casual brutality toward women endemic to the original tales inspired a musical program about a contemporary young woman persecuted by patriarchal forces. (In preconcert remarks, Alsop vouched for Adams’s bona fides, calling him “probably the biggest feminist I know.”)
Adams conjures a dazzling sound world — fraught, mysterious, tense and atmospheric — indebted to Sibelius and Prokofiev and enlivened with exotic touches from the cimbalom, celesta and percussion. Frequent unison writing for the orchestra suggests the oppressive force of society. At the work’s center is the epic solo violin part, performed by Leila Josefowicz, whose incisive and impassioned musicianship brought to life the grit, vulnerability, violence and beauty of the heroine’s journey.
The earnest conviction of Adams’s revisionism appeared to carry over after intermission to the opening movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 19th-century symphonic suite, “Scheherazade.” With a ponderous beat and heavy textures, Alsop’s reading of the story of Sinbad the Sailor unfolded more as a stately voyage than a swashbuckling adventure.
Things perked up with the second movement, yet with the notable exception of concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s rhapsodic solos, the performance remained stubbornly prosaic and strait-laced. It seemed as if Alsop were conducting a granitic German symphony and was reluctant to lean into the unabashedly Orientalist flavor of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. Something was lost in translation.