A Symphony of Silk

Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880 By John Schauer


Alberto Vargas, Scheherazade, 1921In April, I retired from my position at Ravinia after 21 years, and in all that time, there was only one performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's beloved symphony/tone poem Scheherazade. The good news is, it returns to Ravinia on August 6 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Rafael Payare. It always amazed me that this work wasn't done at Ravinia more often; to my mind, it's practically made to order for an outdoor performance on a summer night. But that conviction isn't based solely upon the magnificence of the music, or the fact that as one of the greatest orchestrators of all time--he wrote a treatise on the subject that is still in use today--Rimsky-Korsakov created a stunning showcase for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It's because I grew up in a house without air conditioning.

My family wasn't tragically poor; it's just that, like all Baby Boomers, I grew up at a time when air conditioning was something you experienced at the movie theater or in a department store, not at home. I think one girl in my high school class had air conditioning at her home, but she was the rare exception. The rest of us made do with electric fans. And I'm talking about Milwaukee summers here, which can be every bit as scorching and humid as the worst that Chicago can throw at you.

Pierre Monteux, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 1958So with my childish imagination, I devised a make-believe scenario into which I escaped to make the heat--which I really hate--somewhat bearable. It was inspired by a recording of Scheherazade I bought at a time when I probably owned fewer than a couple dozen records. I came to love the sumptuous music and the drama of the various stories told by each movement, but it was the cover that really piqued my imagination. It was a photo of an attractive young woman costumed in gossamer veils as Scheherazade herself, reclining on satin cushions inside a billowing silken tent, telling one of her stories. It was a stereotypical look that conformed to the few other impressions I had of the Middle East from children's books of Aladdin, from campy old Maria Montez movies and countless comedy sketches on TV.

Looking back, I realize I really had no conception whatsoever of Arab culture or politics, and that my main impressions were made by fabrics: desert sheiks in flowing white cotton, dancing girls in gauzy harem pants, satin cushions, silk tents--everything light and flowing, to help the natives endure the unbearable heat.

Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) 02 by L. BakstSo on ghastly summer days with 99-degree heat and 99 percent humidity, that's where I went in my imagination. Lying on my bed, I would put Scheherazade on the phonograph while nibbling grapes and sipping lemonade, as if I were the Persian ruler to whom the stories were being told. It didn't dispel the heat, of course, but somehow, in that setting, the climate seemed more natural and bearable--at least for as long as the music lasted.

Considering that Rimsky-Kosakov's music is thoroughly Russian and composed for a large Western orchestra, it's surprising how indelibly it has become associated with the Arabian Nights. Years ago, when the BBC presented a restoration of the classic 1924 silent film version of The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., they had composer Carl Davis create a score based almost exclusively on the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, mostly Scheherazade. It worked magnificently and impressed viewers so strongly that when various editions of the film were released on DVD with different soundtracks, buyers were upset that none of them featured the music they most associated with the film from telecasts. You can still read their complaints in the reviews on Amazon.com; fortunately, that situation has resolved, and a beautiful Blu-ray restoration is available with the Carl Davis score in all its glory. Needless to say, the movie opens to the first bars of Rimsky's beloved work.


So here on August 6, for the modest price of a lawn ticket, is a rare chance to enter the enchanted Persian realm immortalized by Omar Khayyam: spread out your blanket and enjoy "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread--and thou" . . . and maybe some assorted cheeses and dips, chilled fruit and the 100-plus members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I'll bet Scheherazade wishes she had that nice a setup.