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Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

April 21 @ 2:30 pm

Historic texts, tales, and sea-faring travel inspire a program conducted by Dinuk Wijeratne—who is also a pianist and JUNO® award-winning composer. Perhaps it was kismet that Borodin’s opera Prince Igor was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, because it went on to provide a hit tune on Broadway. The storytelling prowess of the legendary Persian Queen Scheherazade enchanted the Sultan in the tales of One Thousand and One Nights—Rimsky-Korsakov’s own suite does the same for music lovers.

Concert underwritten by Commodore & Mrs. Jan Drent and Natexa Verbrugge


Dinuk Wijeratne, conductor

Sri Lankan-born Canadian Dinuk Wijeratne is a JUNO and multi-award-winning composer, conductor, and pianist who has been described by the New York Times as ‘exuberantly creative’, by the Toronto Star as ‘an artist who reflects a positive vision of our cultural future’, and by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra as ‘a modern polymath’. His boundary-crossing work sees him equally at home in collaborations with symphony orchestras and string quartets, tabla players and DJs, and takes him to international venues as poles apart as the Berlin Philharmonie and the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Dinuk was featured as a main character in ‘What would Beethoven do?’ – the 2016 documentary about innovation in classical music featuring Eric Whitacre, Bobby McFerrin and Ben Zander. Forthcoming projects include new works for Grammy-winning baritone Elliot Madore (featuring Dinuk as pianist) and Grammy-nominated mandolinist Avi Avital, the test piece for the Banff International String Quartet Competition 2022, and conducting debuts with the Calgary Philharmonic and Qatar Philharmonic, Doha.

Dinuk made his Carnegie Hall debut while still a student in 2004 as a composer, conductor, and pianist performing with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. A second Carnegie appearance followed in 2009, alongside tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Dinuk has also appeared at the BoulezSaal (Berlin), Kennedy Center (Washington DC), Opéra Bastille (Paris), Lincoln Center (New York), Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), Sri Lanka, Japan, and across the Middle East. Dinuk grew up in Dubai before taking up composition studies at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Manchester, UK. In 2001, he was invited by Oscar-winning composer John Corigliano to join his studio at New York’s Juilliard School. Conducting studies followed at New York’s Mannes College of Music, and doctoral studies under Christos Hatzis at the University of Toronto.

Dinuk has composed specially for almost all of the artists and ensembles with whom he has performed; to name a few: Suzie LeBlanc, David Jalbert, James Ehnes, Kinan Azmeh, Bev Johnston, Joseph Petric, Sandeep Das, Tim Garland, Ed Thigpen, Ramesh Misra, Barry Guy, Eric Vloeimans, Buck 65, DJ Skratch Bastid, the Gryphon Trio, the Afiara, Danel & Cecilia String Quartets, the Apollo Saxophone Quartet, TorQ Percussion, and the Symphony orchestras of Toronto, Vancouver, the National Arts Centre, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Buffalo, Illinois, Fresno, Asheville, Saskatoon, Windsor, Victoria, PEI, and Thunder Bay. Dinuk is the only artist to have served both as Conductor-in-Residence and Composer-in-Residence of a Canadian orchestra (Symphony Nova Scotia).

A passionate educator, Dinuk is committed to helping emerging and mid-career classical artists navigate the classical music industry in today’s increasingly complex, diverse, and globalized world. As a Creativity Consultant he serves private clients as well as students of the Banff Centre (Evolution Classical) and Toronto’s Glenn Gould School. His educational guide ‘Define Your Artistic Voice’ was downloaded 150 times from his blog within the first two days of its release. Dinuk also served as Music Director of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra for thirteen seasons. He is also the recipient of the Canada Council Jean-Marie Beaudet award for orchestral conducting; the NS Established Artist Award; NS Masterworks nominations for his Tabla Concerto and piano trio Love Triangle; double Merritt Award nominations; Juilliard, Mannes, & Countess of Munster scholarships; the Sema Jazz Improvisation Prize; the Soroptimist International Award for Composer-Conductors; and the Sir John Manduell Prize – the RNCM’s highest student honour. His music and collaborative work embrace the great diversity of his international background and influences.

APRIL 21, 2024


According to composer, conductor, and piano virtuoso Dinuk Wijeratne, one of his preoccupations is trying to broker a meeting between East and West—and this socio-aesthetic concern will emerge in many subtle ways as he leads the Victoria Symphony’s Scheherazade program.

It is, for instance, vividly present in Wijeratne’s decision to conduct Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic suite Scheherazade, which the Russian composer wrote in 1888, at the very height of Europe’s “Orientalist” fascination with Asian arts and culture. Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece shares its epoch with the purple prose of French novelist Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème and Fantôme d’Orient, the immense influence of Japanese printmakers such as Utagawa Hiroshige on the early Impressionists, and just barely predates the 1889 arrival of Indonesian gamelan music in Paris, which would make such an impact on composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. But there’s a darker side to this Orientalist preoccupation, too. While Rimsky-Korsakov was borrowing themes for his symphonic dream from the anonymous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales known as The One Thousand and One Nights, his Tsar, Alexander III, was pursuing a deadly policy of imperial conquest in the very countries that had produced those stories, most notably the region then known as Persia.

Why, then, would an artist who was born in Sri Lanka—which itself had been passed from Portuguese to Dutch to British control before becoming a republic in 1972—want to engage with this relic of an imperialist past? “Well,” Wijeratne says, “I usually joke that it’s the kind of piece that I wish I could have written, but I didn’t.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. Besides Wijeratne’s obvious love for Rimsky-Korsakov’s stirring melodies and lush orchestration, this Russian fantasy prefigures some of his own compositional concerns.

“It’s kind of an internal-identity thing,” he explains. “I mean, Scheherazade is one of my favourite pieces in my repertoire, and it makes for an interesting pairing if one’s own music is trying to, you know, meld cultures.

“Now I do like pointing out to the audience that Scheherazade is not really an East-meets-West piece,” he continues, noting that Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical language is very much in keeping with that of other Russian composers of his era. “It was trying to be, in the sense that it clearly comes from this sort of empire-building/Orientalist perspective, and there is an Orientalist otherness that is being told through music. And then there’s the story about the sultan and how he was prolonging the life of the heroine, and that brings in this whole misogynistic thing. But I think that also has to be told from the podium. I talk about how we were telling stories in those days, and I think it’s good for people to know that.

“But, anyway, long story short: the link is that I do find, even as a person of colour, these Orientalist perspectives fascinating. People wanted to tell stories that way and then, that aside, from a purely sonic point of view you have a stunning piece. It’s like box-office gold! It’s one of those rare pieces that orchestras love to play because they get lots of solos, and that audiences love to hear it because it’s got everything. It just kind of wins on all levels.”

Other Orientalist visions are referenced in Wijeratne’s own work. The verses that inspired the first of his Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems, “A letter from the After-life”, are presumed to have been penned by the 11th-century Persian polymath Omar Khayyám, but Wijeratne encountered them in an 1869 English translation by Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald was obviously seeking a deeper connection with Asian philosophy than Rimsky-Korsakov’s harem fantasy. In his Rubáiyát translation one gets a strong sense of a staid English mind being blown by the beauty of Persian poetry, and by the notion that Christian duality might not be the only lens through which the world might be seen.

Wijeratne meets FitzGerald in this contested ground by weaving North Indian tabla rhythms into his string parts, and by quoting a European classic of morbid Romanticism, Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, more popularly known as Death and the Maiden.

The adaptation embedded in “I will not let thee go”, the second part of Two Pop Songs, is simpler: change the archaic “thee” of the Victorian poet Robert Bridges’ “I Will Not Let Thee Go” to a more contemporary-sounding “you”. The ensuing resemblance to any number of modern pop lyrics is striking, and that ties in to another of Wijeratne’s obsessions: dance.

“The influence of dance is always strong, I would say,” he comments, linking the loops and grooves of modern dance pop to the cyclical forms that underpin much South Asian music. “I hear this in Scheherazade, too. It’s just highly rhythmic music, and dance-influenced. And then the Borodin [Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances] came to mind, because it just fits in nicely.”

Returning to Edward FitzGerald and Omar Khayyám, Wijeratne sees in both poet and translator “someone discovering oneself in the vastness of the universe.” The same could be said of his own path through music, from first encountering the classical composers as a child to collaborating with cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s intercultural Silk Road Project to finding his own voice as a piano improviser. It has been an exciting journey so far, and will be worth continuing to watch.

Notes by Alex Varty

Dinuk Wijeratne (1978—)
Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems*
“A letter from the Afterlife”
“I will not let you go” 

*World premiere of a new version for string orchestra (2024) made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor.

Alexander Borodin (1833—1887)
Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances
Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens
Polovtsian Dances


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844—1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35
The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
The Tale of Prince Kalendar
The Young Prince and the Princess
The Festival at Bagdad; The Sea; The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock

BORODIN: Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances: I. Introduzione, Andantino
Performed by Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra

Performed by Galician Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor



April 21
starts at 2:30 pm


Victoria Symphony


Royal Theatre
805 Broughton St + Google Map

Concert Credits

Concert Programme

  • Dinuk Wijeratne
    Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems
  • Alexander Borodin
    Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances
  • Rimsky-Korsakov