Philadelphia Orchestra’s upcoming “Scheherazade.2” performances celebrate the strength of women

A violin tells the story of a strong female lead in “Scheherazade.2”.

Philadelphia audiences have a rare opportunity to see contemporary composer John Adams and violinist Leila Josefowicz perform together with the Philadelphia Orchestra Sept. 26-28. Adams will conduct Josefowicz and the Orchestra for their performance of Adams’ dramatic symphony “Scheherazade.2”. The symphony was inspired by a female character and narrator of the same name from “One Thousand and One Nights” who saves her own life by telling her husband a tale every night. This work is one of many upcoming dedications to women’s voices and performances for the Orchestra’s 2019-2020 season. Since she first played the symphony’s world premiere in 2015, Josefowicz uses her instrument to give a new voice to the bold narrator.

Philadelphia Orchestra’s upcoming “Scheherazade.2” performances celebrate the strength of women

“The symphony reflects the image in my mind of a beautiful and empowered woman who ultimately speaks back to power,” Adams says. “Leila is like a modern Scheherazade. She has a particular sense of vulnerability when she plays, and an incredible stage presence. She is very open and generous with her personality and audiences are drawn to her.”

Josefowicz “speaks” for this character with her violin solo, a primary focus of the 50-minute symphony. Adams wrote the part in the symphony specifically for Josefowicz, who also collaborated with Adams during the process. She received the work a year before its premiere and dedicated her practice to inspiring women.

“This is a character portrait,” says Josefowicz. “I’m characterizing Scheherazade through sound. I went through a huge study process, including thinking about strong women from various times throughout history, from the present to Joan of Arc. You’re trying to bring the fullest expression to every gesture, and because of the length, that’s difficult. This piece is such an emotional journey and saga in a way that’s so current.”

Performing in Philadelphia is a homecoming for Josefowicz. She began studying violin at Curtis Institute at age 13. Adams will conduct the orchestra for the first time since the 1990s, and conducting his own work will act as a long-awaited return. Josefowicz and Adams have traveled around the world to perform the symphony with other orchestras. The history of this piece is something of an anomaly for modern classical music.

“Most contemporary classical pieces get a premiere and possibly one or two performances after that, and then they go on the shelf,” he says. “I have been very lucky with many of my pieces and particularly this one.”

For Josefowicz, the performance’s meaning has evolved over time, including through the Me Too era. 

“There are various things in my life that have involved tests of strength and rising up to a challenge,” she says. “This solo is a test of strength throughout the performance and it’s exhausting. But if it isn’t exhausting, I know I didn’t put enough energy into it.”

“Scheherazade.2” runs at the Kimmel Center Sept. 26-28. Tickets are $39. The concert program also includes performances of Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” and Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale”. To learn more information and purchase tickets, visit philorch.org.

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