Most major violin soloists devote much of their careers to performing the well-known concertos by composers like Beethoven, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. But around 2003, Leila Josefowicz decided to set aside such familiar repertoire and focus exclusively on contemporary works. It was a risky move, because many orchestras still have uneasy relationships with new music, performing it sporadically, if at all. But the switch has paid off in spades for the Canadian-born violinist, giving her a much sharper identity as a performer and earning her a 2008 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
Josefowicz now regularly performs works by such noted composers as Thomas Adès, Steven Mackey and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but her closest bond might be with John Adams, whom she describes as one of her closest friends. She has performed his Violin Concerto (1993) more than 100 times, including on many occasions with him as conductor, and she also has played his Road Movies (1995) for violin and piano and The Dharma at Big Sur (2003) for six-string electric violin and orchestra. Josefowicz describes the latter, written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, as an Eastern-influenced work with a “twist of [Jimi] Hendrix.”
In 2014-15, Adams composed Scheherazade.2, which he describes as “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra,” with Josefowicz in mind. She premiered it in 2015 with music director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, and she has performed it 30-40 times since, including a Grammy-nominated recording with the St. Louis Symphony. “He always said to me, ‘If I write another violin concerto, it has to be so different from anything else I’ve ever written for the instrument,’” she said of Adams. “Lo and behold comes Scheherazade.2, which is truly so different than any other piece written for violin, much less by him.”
Josefowicz will join guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of the new work March 2, 4 and 7. The concerts kick off the CSO’s salute this season to Adams, who turned 70 on Feb. 1; they contribute to a worldwide birthday celebration, which includes dozens of performances of his music by an array of top ensembles from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In his notes on the work, Adams said that Scheherazade.2 was inspired by an exhibition he saw at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. The exhibit examined the history of The Arabian Nights, the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales, and one of its central characters, Scheherazade, who told alluring stories for 1,001 nights to stave off her execution by a ruthless king. Adams began thinking about modern-day Scheherazades, such as the “woman in the blue bra” in Tahrir Square, who was dragged through the streets and severely beaten by an angry male mob in 2011. “This is a very political time,” Josefowicz said. “This is a very political piece of music, and you can’t overlook that. This is a huge statement. Thinking about the Women’s March [the nationwide protest on Jan. 21], this is really on people’s minds right now. I think it will be an anthem for those who listen.”
Scheherazade.2 has a loose story line suggested by the titles of its four movements: I. Tale of the Wise Young Woman — Pursuit by the True Believers, II. A Long Desire (love scene), III. Scheherazade and the Men with Beards (“That’s a moment you cannot miss if you are listening to it,” Josefowicz said. “It sounds like all hell opened upon you.”), and IV. Escape, Flight, Sanctuary. “It’s a huge piece and it’s really theatrical piece, and it’s to be taken seriously. The title, ‘Dramatic Symphony, he was thinking of, say, Symphonie fantastique, which also has a vague story line,” she said. “But for me, this is really a role. It’s so much more than a piece of music to play. I have to become this woman, this force, and it’s been an absolute pleasure.”
Adams first mysteriously told Josefowicz that “something big is coming,” and then he sent her most of the score, seeking her comments and suggestions. The biggest changes, she said, came to the opening five or so minutes of the work and the final movement, the original version of which the composer scrapped and completely rewrote. More minor alterations were made to the rest of the piece with her answering technical questions as needed. “I have a pretty strong sense instinctually of what a composer will want,” she said. “And then I know my own technique, and if they are writing for me, I can help them achieve the maximum effect, mood or gesture they are aiming for.”
In 2000, Josefowicz began performing Adams’ Violin Concerto. “It was sort of an adventure,” she said. “I was breaking free of doing standard repertoire all the time, and it was refreshing. It felt more free than these standard works that people are playing over and over again constantly. I was getting tired of this predictability. This was my first piece of departure in some ways.”
Not only did the work set her on her journey toward becoming strictly an interpreter of contemporary music, her performances of the work eventually caught the attention of Adams and led to the two becoming collaborators, including many performances that he conducts. “That’s how we got to know each other,” she said. “It started one of the most rewarding friendships I think I’ll ever have in my whole life.”
Adams has sought to break away from the aloof atonalism that dominated the compositional world during the mid-20th century, beginning with a minimalist, tonal style that has since evolved in other rich directions. He often looks back at classical music’s centuries-old history and draws on a range of outside stylistic influences, including rock, jazz and Eastern traditions. “There are not that many composers out there, whether or not his music speaks to you, that have such a strong personality and character that you know pretty much instantly who it is,” Josefowicz said. “His music is really special.”
In addition, she said, many of the composer’s works respond to important issues of our time like Scheherazade.2, a spotlight on the rights of women, or The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera that uses a notorious terrorist incident as a vehicle to examine Palestinian-Israeli relations. “He has a way of pinpointing these subjects that are controversial, that are truly of now and making people think about them, inviting people in his way to consider various angles,” she said.
On why she and Adams have hit it off so well, Josefowicz said, “Oh, gosh. Why do any people hit it off?” But after reflecting for a few seconds, she pointed out that they both have their rebellious sides. Adams bucked the claustrophobic compositional world he discovered as a student, and she has broken free from the conventions associated with violin virtuosos. “I think there is an urgency to wanting to bring real life, real living, real sort of earthly tastes into what we do, to respect the art form, yet bring aspects of our personalities into it,” she said.
Even though more than 30 years separate Josefowicz and Adams in age, she laughed when asked about any sense of generation gap between them. “Not in the least,” she said. “In fact, I cannot believe he is turning 70. He might as well be turning 50 or 45 to me. He has incredible energy — incredible. I forget completely about our ages when we work together. He’s very young.”
Unlike Aaron Copland, for example, who did little composing after age 60, Adams remains as active as ever, as his recent completion of Scheherazade.2 makes clear. “He has a real hunger to keep going, keep moving, keep writing,” Josefowicz said. “He’s very inspiring for me in that way. There is no hint of going anywhere but up. He’s truly amazing.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.