A sultan, a faithless queen, emirs, wazirs, lords, grandees, pirates, carnivals and shipwrecks. A pair of star-crossed lovers. Beauty and the Beast. Tom Thumb. And, most of all, one very smart young woman, Scheherazade, the legendary teller of tales.
San Juan Symphony Music Director Thomas Heuser will conjure all of the above in twin concerts this weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, “Fantasy and Fairy Tale” will capture the spirit of winter storytelling in Farmington and Durango.
“The cornerstone, of course,” Heuser said, “is Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic ‘Scheherazade.’” In the 45-minute suite, four parts plus a rollicking finale, the Russian composer “depicts the exotic world of ‘The Arabian Nights,’ with an abundance of solos and flashy effects that color the score.”
The work on which the suite is based is now a fixture of world literature. “A Thousand and One Nights” is a massive compilation of stories that evolved over centuries. With no single source but many authors, the collection included Persian, Indian and Arabic tales. Over time, various scholars translated the stories, and Rimsky-Korsakov famously interpreted some in 1888, with Scheherazade’s role represented by a beguiling violin solo.
In literature and music, it is Scheherazade who provides the framework for the stories. There’s no way of sugar-coating the legend: Scheherazade was the daughter of a Wizer in Sultan Shahrivar’s palace. On learning his queen was unfaithful, the Sultan violently killed her and her lover then vowed to punish all the virgins in his kingdom. Each day, he married one and had her killed the next morning.
When it was Scheherazade’s “turn,” she crafted a scheme to enthrall the Sultan with stories that lasted all night and didn’t end at dawn, thereby extending her life for another day. She persisted for 1001 nights until the Sultan realized he loved her and finally abandoned his cruel plan.
“Most notably, Scheherazade herself is depicted in the music by sultry colors for the principal violin, usually the concertmaster of the orchestra,” Heuser said.
Guest concertmaster for the February performances violinist Lauren Avery has an illustrious career as a solo and chamber player. She also happens to be Heuser’s wife and says it’s a particular pleasure to perform in this concert among her many friends in the symphony and in the audience.
“I’ve performed ‘Scheherazade’ a number of times, both as concertmaster and as a section player, but I still look forward to it every time,” Avery said. “I love the music and the energy and to be immersed in the enchantment.”
Throughout the suite, Avery will unspool the musical equivalent of the storyteller’s art, a delicate phrase, a kind of golden filigree that curls upward into the air. Enchantment, indeed.
In addition to Korsakov’s work, which closes the program, Heuser and company will open the concert with Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite.” Enter the musical visions of Beauty, the Beast and other characters.
The orchestra will also unfold Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet “Fantasy Overture.”
“Tchaikovsky brought Shakespeare to life,” Heuser said. “You’ll hear the warring Montagues and Capulets, the contemplative Friar Lawrence, and of course, the overwhelming romance between the naïve, young lovers.”
To make good on the orchestra’s commitment to showcase student musicians, Heuser has invited a dozen young players to sit side by side in this annual endeavor.
“Each of this year’s participants have auditioned and all happen to be string students,” Heuser said. “The level of these young musicians continues to rise each year, and we are proud to showcase their dedication. They are the future of our musical community.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.