The Houston Symphony presents A Scheherazade Thanksgiving, November 24-26, at Jones Hall.
The Houston Symphony presents A Scheherazade Thanksgiving, November 24-26, at Jones Hall.

How to Outsmart a Murderous Sultan, or A Scheherazade Thanksgiving

"Who Shot J.R.?" may be one of the most memorable cliffhangers in television history, but the technique of plunging a character into peril to keep the audience coming back for more predates our '80s guilty pleasure, television's Dallas.

The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights tells the story of another misogynistic, power-hungry man, someone whose evil machinations made Larry Hagman's character look tame in comparison. In this tale from the Islamic Golden Age, the sultan killed his unfaithful wife and — to make sure it never happened again — married and killed all of his future wives until he (almost) ran out of prospects.

That is until one smart cookie found a loophole. New bride Scheherazade told the sultan a new story each night, weaving tales like "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Aladdin's Lamp" and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor," leaving off with a new cliffhanger each evening and ensuring she lived to see another day, or 1,001 another days.

In Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrated tone poem, Scheherazade, the Russian composer takes us through the classic tale with four movements: The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, The Kalandar Prince, The Young Prince and The Young Princess, and Festival at Baghdad. We'll hear this sumptuous music, conducted by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, when the Houston Symphony presents A Scheherazade Thanksgiving, November 24-26.

"It’s such a colorful and vibrant piece of music," says Rebecca Zabinski, artistic administrator. "Korsakov is famous for orchestrations that are very lush and beautiful. It definitely evokes an exotic mood. He wanted you to feel like you were in the midst of 1,001 Nights, that sort of fairy tale exotic setting.

"Scheherazade didn’t want to die and she came up with a plan to tell him stories every night but not finish so he was left wanting to know what happened. She went through many nights and they ended up falling in love," says Zabinski. "At the very beginning of the piece there's a little motive that the basses play, to represent the sultan, and then a difficult solo with the harp for Scheherazade."

The Houston Symphony presents Grammy® Award-winning violinist James Ehnes in a performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1
The Houston Symphony presents Grammy® Award-winning violinist James Ehnes in a performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1
Photo courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Also on the program for A Scheherazade Thanksgiving is a performance by Grammy® Award-winning violinist James Ehnes, presenting his unique take on Dmitri Shostakovich’s controversial Violin Concerto No. 1.

"What you can expect from James is a Herculean performance of an extremely difficult concerto," says Zabinski. "It's very technically difficult; the soloist plays the entire time. It’s about a half an hour of nonstop fireworks. He is one of the best violinists in the world, certainly of his generation. I’ve heard him play and every time I’m just blown away.

"Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers actually because his life was so interesting," says Zabinski. "There was a time during post war Soviet Union where many artists of all disciplines were repressed and could be labeled bad Soviets. He himself was condemned at the time. He was composing music for the government, playing by the rules, and privately he was composing other music that was fulfilling him artistically."

The composer already was topping the black lists and, not wanting to poke the bear, tabled his violin concerto until after Stalin's death. It finally premiered in 1955, garnering ovation after ovation, wowing the audience with its dark and sarcastic movements and putting the violinist through grueling paces.

"Shostakovich is famous for leaving sort of hidden little messages in his music. Some people say that there are parts that represent the peasants. He was working on some songs that were his disgusted response to antisemitism. So the whole concept of oppressed people and the working class were very much of his time, but towards the end he does a couple of interesting things. He brings back a little snippet from one of his past symphonies that represents Stalin, and also references Beethoven," says Zabinski.

"His concerto ends on a positive, almost happy, note. Almost as if a battle has been won, something has been overcome. You can’t know for sure, but maybe he was making a commentary on how he felt Russia would make it through those dark times and return to the Russia where people were happy."

There's a prelude pre-concert discussion 45 minutes before each performance, led by Musical Ambassador Carlos Andrés Botero.

Performances of A Scheherazade Thanksgiving are at 8 p.m. November 24 and 25, 2:30 p.m. November 26, Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 713-224-7575, houstonsymphony.org, $23 to $120.

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