Last Sunday’s performance of Scheherazade by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did exactly as the series name promises. We were transported “Beyond the Score” and through a window to experience what is sometimes called the ‘musical orientalism’ of Rimsky-Korsakov and his fellow Russian composers of the late 19th Century. We see the virtues of a somewhat imagined East as they did and we learn how Rimsky-Korsakov’s life shaped the piece we were listening to.
With the help of 21st Century technology, we probably experienced Scheherazade just as the composer reportedly wanted us to. Namely, the actor so expertly playing the composer (Roger Mueller) shares with the audience that he, Rimsky-Korsakov, had considered renaming the piece more generically as a symphonic suite because he didn’t want people to think he was telling a story. Rather, he just wanted us to have images of the East as we experience the music.
And indeed we did! After intermission when conductor Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra in playing Scheherazade without interruption, we felt a rainstorm of the images that had told the story of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life, work and the Scheherazade symphony in part one of the performance.
These images included shadow puppets that were used to illustrate 1001 Arabian Nights to complement actress Sandra Delgado as she read from various tales.
There were also rapid-fire photos of life from Russian territories in the steppes of Central Asia.
We see sensual paintings drawing the imagined harems of 1001 Arabian nights and Russian drawing rooms alike.
And we learn of how Rimsky-Korsakov’s imagination was fired by a love of the sea, even as a child and before he had seen the ocean. We are also treated to cartographically-correct antique navigation maps to show us his journeys from North America to Rio de Janeiro. Even the small island of Fernando do Noronha is on this map! -- a spot that would be known to sailors of that time as a way station en route to the tip of South America.
Lovely watercolors of the composer’s boyhood home and sketches to show the folk tale roots of fellow composers’ works flashed before us.
We learned of the influence that these fellow composers (Balakirev, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, etc.) had on him as he had on them and their combined vision of a more Slavic and Eastern-influenced alternative to Occidental music.
We see hurricanes at sea and we listen to phrases from Scheherazade that bring these roiling ocean waters to life in our ears.
Exotic flora from Eastern lands is captured in oil paintings of the period, as are landscapes showing the minarets and domes of Islamic architecture.
Mughal paintings equivalent to those in the finest collections in Rajasthan India let us see the world as Rimsky Korsakov and his compatriots from more Western Russia imagined their East. We see mosaics that one would find in Istanbul.
We learn that above all Rimsky-Korsakov looked to the English Horn’s “succulence” and “velvetiness” to convey the quality that is Oriental and how he used this instrument when he worked on orchestrations for his colleagues.
It would not surprise me if the animator (Hilary Leben), artist (Tim Millar), and creative director (Gerard McBurney) had kept count and ensured that we actually saw 1001 images --- their devotion to detail is so apparent.
Our heads swirling with all this imagery and the well-chosen words from Rimsky-Korsakov’s pen that explained his world, we returned after intermission for an uninterrupted performance of the piece.
Although it is unlikely that many in the audience had not heard Scheherazade many times before, the omissions from the Part One lecture of many of the key phrases that lead this swirling symphony from one mood to another made the Part Two performance all the more exquisite. Concertmaster Robert Chen’s virtuoso performance of his lead in Scheherazade was extraordinarily dramatic to our ears. So too with the English Horn, oboe, French Horn, trombone and other instruments--again and again we are serendipitously delighted.
Conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of Chicago’s Sinfonietta Orchestra, must have had a difficult task trying to highlight particular musicians. As we so often expect and get with the CSO, every corner of the orchestra shined. The standing ovations continued for quite some time. It is likely that the swirl of Scheherazade music and vivid images continues still in audience members’ minds and will stir anew whenever we hear the symphony again.
Photos: Todd Rosenberg