Meet the Music Makers - Leila Josefowicz

UChicago Presents: Some musicians have an early musical memory or origin story that they can point to. ("That's the moment I knew I wanted to be a violinist.") Did you have one of those?

Leila Josefowicz: I don’t think there was exactly one. But when I was very young and performing—when I was about 10—I had various opportunities. One of them was [playing] on America’s Tribute to Bob Hope, a television show that got me my first management with IMG. That was a key moment. Basically, I realized that I was working very hard at this and it seemed to be working out pretty well for me! But there wasn’t really exactly one moment.

UCP: Having been the first performer and dedicatee of a number of contemporary repertory works, could you describe what the collaborative process of working with the composer is like? Of course, I'm sure it's never the same thing twice, in which case we can take two high-profile examples: Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto and John Adam's Scheherazade.2.

LJ: There are so many different stages of excitement with these things. The first is the basic excitement is that this massive thing is going to come your way—this is really what I live for, collaborating with such incredible geniuses. Often times, before I get the score, we talk about what [the composer] wants to write about, how they want to write, and what I respond especially well to. The fact that they want to write for me as an artist means to me that they must know what my playing style is like, and that we’ll work well together.

It was really an amazing process with Esa-Pekka. He would send me pieces of a movement, or a whole movement, and then we’d have a Skype meeting where we looked it over and talked about various aspects of it. If there were things that I thought might work slightly better on the violin, I would show him.

[With Scheherazade.2], I think I saw most of the piece at once. John was excited to present it to me, virtually finished. The biggest change [between that draft and the final] was the last movement. We went over it, and he was like, “Aw, no, this is all wrong! It’s too much like the first violin concerto I wrote.” He did use certain material, in essence, but the last movement completely transformed, and is now one of the best pieces of his writing, in my opinion. Which is pretty amazing to me. The very opening of the piece also transformed from the first draft.

My general rule with any composition is that I only say something is unplayable if it’s genuinely, truly unplayable, because their ideas and their thought process is sort of the sacred thing here; they chose certain notes for a reason. The only reason I wouldn’t play something is if it’s an actual impossibility. But if you look at the standard violin concertos [in the repertoire], oftentimes violin players had started out saying, “That’s unplayable!” But very few things are really unplayable. It’s just a thrilling thing to be part of a new work, and [the composers] know that I love to be part of this, if they’re open to it. It’s a real pleasure and thrill to see how it evolves from the first draft to the finished product.

UCP: Yeah, I heard you play Scheherazade.2 in Chicago, and was totally floored, as I think a lot of people are when they first hear that piece.

LJ: It’s a political work, and a very emotional work. Probably more than any other piece out there, at least thus far, it really made me take an emotional, almost theatrical stance in it. To become this figure—this very powerful, rebellious, and yet still very vulnerable character—to have the subtleties of her character speak in the music… was what I aimed to do. Also, because of the scope of the piece—the concentration involved, as well as the emotional strength—the preparation of the piece was really an amazing process. It was a real role for me, many sides of which I already really associated with. But it woke up those sides of me, in a way, which were ready to come out.

UCP: You're visiting Chicago with longtime recital partner John Novacek. And I mean really longtime: I read that you two started playing together when you were just eight!

LJ: Yes, that’s correct. It’s amazing. He was the [studio] pianist for my violin teacher at the time, Robert Lipsett. It’s amazing to see how people’s lives evolve—mine with my career starting very soon after that, and his, too, in that he started collaborating with so many different players all over the world. When I moved out to the east coast [to attend the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia], he would fly out and stay with me and my family. Eventually, he moved to New York, where I was already living. The geography didn’t really interfere with anything.

We have this incredibly close friendship now that’s lasted almost as long as I’ve been alive. I’m so extremely privileged to have this relationship with him. Also, to work with someone for a full recital like this year after year is very intense; one has to have a lot of trust in that person, and also has to love that person, to work that much together, nose to the grindstone! You have to be extremely comfortable: it’s not just working together, but also traveling, meals, hotels… It’s like when you find a partner in a figure skating competition: it’s a true collaboration, and when you have someone that clicks, you have to stick together, because it’s rare.

UCP: I’m intrigued by the solo arrangements of well-known orchestral literature on your program [Valse Triste, Adagietto]. I didn’t know there were solo arrangements of those pieces!

LJ: At first, I didn’t either! But whenever I heard the Adagietto, I thought, God, there has to be something out there. And then, lo and behold, we start investigating, and as far as I could tell, there were two different arrangements. One is by a German composer, and I also looked at one from 1914, by Otto Wittenbecher. This one is simpler, actually, and more true to the original score. The other is a little fancier. John and I felt that, after playing both, the simpler one spoke to us more. It felt more heartfelt and genuine. So, that’s what we stuck with.

I laugh at myself, because I think I have to be either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid to try to do this. But, I’m gonna try! [Laughs] It’s a daring thing to do because people have so many ideas about this, and people have such strong feelings about “original-context only.” In many ways, I feel like something interesting will be brought to this work, and it still feels very natural for a solo violin to sing this line, and to almost present it as a song for one voice, although it can be the voice of many. I think that hopefully people will respond to it and enjoy it.

UCP: I find it interesting and telling that the simpler arrangement won out. I’m a violinist myself, and I’ve played a few Chopin arrangements that tried to make the violin play like a piano, and they were always the absolute pits. A good arrangement of these works must demonstrate a lot of economy on the part of the arranger.

LJ: Yeah, of course there’s always an idealistic view of how you want it to sound, and what you want to express with it. But then, past that, there’s the more realistic way this all sounds—not what makes you play the most voices. What is the most expressive, communicative way to channel the character of these pieces? That was the basis of my decision-making there.

UCP: You've gone on the record about your omnivorous music tastes. What or who have you been listening to lately?

LJ: One of the pieces on the program, actually, is by a composer who is newer for me to be playing: Kaija Saariaho. I’ve been listening a lot to her music and orienting myself in that world, which is a really unique, special, extraterrestrial world. I’ve been doing a lot of listening around the recital program, especially around the Adagietto, just to figure what I want to do with this, sound-wise, which is a lot easier said than done. The first step for me was to block out everything I’d heard [in] it and go back to this basic, sweeping song—which, in some ways, is not very sentimental, really, and hard to describe.

Besides that, to be honest, I don’t really listen to music unless I have to! [Laughs] I listen to myself so much that often I’m purely listening for study purposes. But I love Amy Winehouse; she’s my favorite soul singer.

UCP: Funny, it’s her birthday today.

LJ: Oh my gosh. Really? It’s funny that I mentioned her, then. She’s on my mind almost every day. Amy. I learned so much from Amy. I learned as much from her as any great violinist out there. Very special. I love David Bowie, too. There’s so many different kinds of artists that I respect, and I think that makes me a better musician all around.