A decade ago, Leila Josefowicz made a risky decision that has transformed her career and given her an unusual niche among today’s top violinists.

Except for a few groundbreaking 20th-century pieces, such as Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto (which she performed Oct. 17, 19 and 22 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), she decided that she would concentrate exclusively on contemporary works.

“It kind of takes some b—– for me to say it, but I actually realized that I didn’t enjoy playing [the] Beethoven Violin Concerto as much as I should,” said Josefowicz, 35. “I went through many, many months of asking myself why this could be and came to my conclusions, and basically, it was a huge relief. I became much more free and a happier player.”

She took a big chance with the move, because it forgoes the core group of concerto mainstays by composers like Beethoven, Bruch and Tchaikovsky; those works fill out the seasons of most orchestras and serve as the bread and butter of most major violinists’ careers.

By making herself a contemporary specialist, Josefowicz created a distinctive performance niche that has helped her to advance rapidly in the classical world and earned her a “genius grant” in 2008 from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. “It felt kind of ridiculously amazing to receive it,” she said of the honor. “It was such an over-the-top award. I was so flattered. So many things in my life propelled me to go in this direction that I wouldn’t have changed course for anything, but it was just a nice affirmation of what I’m doing.”

Josefowicz regularly performs works that she helped commission, including concertos by Esa-Pekka Salonen (which she played in February 2011 with the CSO, one of the co-commissioners), Steven Mackey and Colin Matthews. In February with the Swedish Radio Symphony, she is scheduled to give the world premiere of a concerto by Italian composer Luca Francesconi, a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio.

Perhaps even more important, she has established herself as the go-to soloist for three other well-regarded contemporary concertos by John Adams, Thomas Adès and Oliver Knussen — all of which were premiered by other violinists.

“All of those have become pieces that I’m really known for,” Josefowicz said. “A lot of them had only had world premieres and were sort of sitting. I discovered how incredible these pieces were, and I decided I’m going to treat them [each] like [the] Beethoven Violin Concerto. I’m going to memorize it and I’m going to stand up and play like it was written 200 years ago, with the same care, the same attention and the same effort into learning it.”

For this visit to Chicago, Josefowicz will be playing one of the rare works she still plays by a deceased composer, but Stravinsky is still very much alive to her. She called him one of the “changers” of modern music, someone who helped set for the stage for everything that has followed since.

“The Stravinsky [concerto] has been an important standard work for me,” she said. “It’s a very interesting work, and it’s a very difficult work in that it is, and Stravinsky says this himself, superficially Baroque. So there are various subtleties to a phrase that maybe sort of allude to the Baroque but are not played in a Baroque style.”

Josefowicz is approaching the 20th anniversary of her 1994 debut at Carnegie Hall with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – the event that propelled her into the international spotlight. While she has lost none of the fiery drive or lofty idealism she possessed then, what has changed is her focus, which is locked on the music of here and now – a daring choice that has brought her both recognition and gratification.

She recalls that year as a time “when I hadn’t gone through very many journeys of self-exploration in terms of: Who am I? What do I like to play? What am I best at playing? I started to ask myself those questions about five years later, and that was beginning of my newer-music path, which has turned out to be just so fulfilling.”

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based arts writer and reviewer.


VIDEO: From the Cafe Concert series, produced by New York’s WXQR-FM, Leila Josefowicz plays an excerpt from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen Verlernt.