The multimedia presentation examined the composer’s life and influences.
A special event from the Madison Symphony Orchestra engaged theatrical luminaries James and Brenda DeVita to provide a glimpse into the life and influences of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote the popular and gaudy 1888 “Symphonic Suite,” or Scheherazade.
The second installment of “Beyond the Score,” presented at Overture Hall Jan. 14 and 15, is part of a series created for the Chicago Symphony, which has developed mixed-media presentations about major symphonic works. “Behind the Score” presentations are designed to provide context to audiences before they experience a full performance of the work. The MSO offered a presentation on Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in 2014.
For Scheherazade, the visuals include projections of old photographs, scenes from Persian art and animated cartoons of rather puerile character. The verbal component consists of two kinds of readings from the DeVitas of American Players Theatre. James DeVita, portraying the composer, reads autobiographical reflections, and Brenda DeVita provides passages, mostly from the Thousand and One Nights collection from which the composer drew his inspirations.
The Thousand and One Nights selections often go beyond Rimsky-Korsakov’s intentions that the music be suggestive rather than strictly programmatic and narrative. The onstage orchestra contributes frequent musical clips, not always precisely keyed to the score as discussed.
This material produces a mixed result. Far too much time is spent on the composer’s experiences at sea. His growing interest in travel and exotic places is, however, given proper weight, as is the extensive fascination with Eastern (especially Arabic) culture shown by a number of his Russian contemporaries and colleagues.
But the presentation lacks a greater context for Rimsky-Korsakov’s body of work. For example, it ignores the place of Scheherazade in his evolving quest to join descriptive evocation with symphonic structure. That struggle persisted through a series of important scores, and culminated in Scheherazade as his final venture in that direction.
For the last two decades of his life, the composer turned definitively to opera instead, transferring his orchestral wizardry to that field. Failure to explain Scheherazade in that context is rather like talking about one of Beethoven’s symphonies without any reference to his others.
The “Behind the Score” presentation is entertaining. And for many audience members, it may make the full performance of the work more enjoyable. Still, I wonder if it conveys much deeper understanding of this composition.
That said, the orchestra proceeds after the intermission to give a rousing performance of the work, with particularly luscious wind solos all along, and a passionate power overall. For those in the audience either familiar with it or new to it, that is the real point of the concert.