Consort, Josefowicz seize the musical road less traveled

Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

Josefowicz excels in offbeat recital

Leila Josefowicz prefers to stake out musical territory as individual as the punkish hair, loose blouse and black pants that make her look more like a refugee from a rock club than a MacArthur Fellowship recipient (in 2008).

Her recital of 20th- and 21st-century violin pieces, presented Friday night in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago, was refreshing not only for its offbeat repertory but also for the take-no-prisoners delivery of Josefowicz and her longtime accompanist, the excellent pianist John Novacek.

One would expect nothing less from a daredevil virtuosa who has given downtown Chicago audiences memorable performances of new concertos by John Adams (his “Scheherazade.2” at the CSO last March), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Oliver Knussen, Steve Mackey and others.

The lean, acerbic, sometimes raspy tone she drew from her violin suited the Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 in F minor as much as the newer and more esoteric European items, Kaija Saariaho’s 2009 “Calices” and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin and Piano Sonata, from 1950.

The morose gestures of Prokofiev’s 1946 sonata make it less accessible than many of his more popular scores, and Friday’s assertive duo took that as a challenge, bringing out the music’s hallucinatory fantasy and delicate grotesquerie.

Saariaho condenses an entire lexicon of extended violin techniques into her 10-minute piece (which translates as either “Calyxes” or “Chalices”), a weird aural odyssey Josefowicz has aptly called “extraterrestrial.” You had to give her credit for making coherent a disparate music landscape a less gifted artist would render merely bumpy.

So it was, too, in Zimmermann’s three-movement sonata, a typically eclectic modernist essay that lays jagged melodic gestures over motoric ostinatos, then loses itself in a fantasy of intense trilling before hurtling to a close in a furious rondo laced with rumba rhythms.

Even the arrangements of more familiar pieces — Sibelius’ “Valse Triste” and the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony — came out of left field. Both proved to be well worth hearing and were played not at all the way one normally hears them played in their original forms. The Sibelius danced almost jauntily (nothing triste here), while Mahler’s deeply elegiac lyricism was pulled this way and that, as if Josefowicz were channeling the ecstatic Mahlerian ethos of Leonard Bernstein.

One more bit of esoterica — Claus Ogermann’s arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s bittersweet song “Smile,” played as an encore — sent many out into the night smiling.

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