1,001 Arabian Nights
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Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade / Gergiev · Vienna Philharmonic · Salzburg Festival 2005

It’s time for another video installment. This is video number three. Since Beethoven’s Fifth is the starting point for the playlist, how do a Russian composer and a Russian conductor fit in? Via the orchestra, which is the august Vienna Philharmonic. Beethoven, of course, made Vienna his home and the first four concerts by the group which would become the Vienna Philharmonic all featured a Beethoven symphony.

Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov is the selection. The music uses a Wagnerian technique of assigning themes or leitmotifs to characters. The opening theme is the ominous presence of the sultan followed by the pleading melody of Scheherazade.

Why is Scheherazade pleading? The sultan has this habit of marrying a virgin and then beheading her the next day only to marry another virgin and beheading her the subsequent day. This habit had gone on for 1,000 nights.

Scheherazade starts telling the sultan a story on her wedding night and leaves it unconcluded at dawn. She returns the following night and tells another story and so on and so forth until after the thousandth night the sultan has fallen in love with her and makes her his queen. Hence the 1001 Arabian Nights.

Rimsky-Korsakov picks four stories to depict in his music: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, The Kalender Prince, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, and The Festival at Bagdad/The Sea/Conclusion.

The performance here is from the Salzburg Festival with Valery Gergiev conducting. Gergiev is one of those conductors who can do pretty much whatever he wants. There have been very few such conductors — ever.

When I spoke to Ferruccio Furlanetto about Herbert von Karajan, he mentioned Gergiev being the only current conductor who has anything close to the resources that von Karajan had access to. What does access to resources get you? Artistic freedom.

The Vienna Philharmonic has a similar level of freedom. They do not have a principal conductor. Instead, they invite guest conductors for every concert. But if you want to go to a concert in Vienna, good luck. The waiting list to become a subscriber is over five years long. One week before each concert there are a few tickets released in something of a lottery system.

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