Always adventurous, violinist Leila Josefowicz took a big gamble 16 years ago when she decided to focus almost exclusively on contemporary music — something very few top-level soloists have done. Would orchestras and other presenters continue to book her? And, more important, would audiences continue to follow?
The answer to both questions has been a resounding “yes,” as her receipt of the prestigious 2018 Avery Fisher Prize made clear. Although she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2008, the Avery Fisher honor carried more meaning in certain ways, because it came from the classical community — her peers. Past winners have included cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Gil Shaham and pianist André Watts.
“I love doing what I’m doing now, and it means a lot to me,” she said. “I’m sort of doing it for myself out of self-preservation in a way, but to think and understand that people really appreciate what I’m doing meant even more to me. So it’s very encouraging, in other words. It makes me very happy. And what I plan to do is just keep on going like this.”
Area audiences will get their next chance to experience her virtuosity Dec. 19-22, when she joins guest conductor Edo de Waart and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as soloist in Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major (1931). “This is one of my specialties, and so I’m always happy to do it,” she said. “I think it is one of the greatest works for violin and orchestra of the 20th century.”
The concerto, which Stravinsky wrote in a neo-classical style, is the earliest concerto that she performs and one of the rare ones not from the past several decades. “It’s also a very eccentric piece, and one that’s incredibly modern,” she said. “This is the genius of Stravinsky. How could I not play Stravinsky? That would be a sin.”
Josefowicz finds that if the concerto is played “academically,” it loses its soul. She believes it requires an approach that brings a “certain charm” to the work and acknowledges the seeming contradiction of Stravinsky — one of the most radical composers of the 20th century — writing a neo-classical work.
“This is already ironic, at least to me, and it needs to be played like that in an urtext fashion,” she said. “He calls this work ‘superfically baroque,’ and you have ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Then it comes down to opinion and interpretation, but to me, when I look at the score, it looks on paper quite well-behaved and classical. It looks sort like a Mozart symphony a little bit. Or Haydn. Very clean. But when you start looking closer, and you listen to the intervals and look at the inflections of some of the gestures he has written, it’s anything but the classical tradition. So to bring that out, you can’t play it in the classical style.”
Josefowicz’s early career path followed a more or less normal trajectory. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1994, performing Tchaikovky’s Violin Concerto with the respected Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. That same year, she signed a recording contract with Philips Classics, recording the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos for her first album. But she gradually realized that she was not finding the fulfillment she sought in performing the classics. Instead, she wanted to engage with living composers.
“There’s a great distance between the performer and the composer, obviously, when you are playing and studying works of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It felt rewarding but not rewarding enough to be dedicating my whole career and life to that era of music,” she said. “I’ve always been drawn to the more contemporary, the more edgy, the more current state of music with all the fantastic pieces that are being written now.”
Just as the great violinist Joseph Joachim was in the 19th century, Josefowicz wants to be part of the creative process, not only inspiring composers of today but also offering advice and support as they write new works for the instrument. “It is important to remember that we need each other,” she said. “The composer needs a wonderful performer to express and sort of message their gestures in music, and we performers need a fabulous composer to create these ideas.”
Josefowicz regularly performs compositions that she helped to 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 2014-15, John Adams composed Scheherazade.2, Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, with Josefowicz in mind. Josefowicz premiered it in 2015 with music director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, and she has performed it dozens of times since, including in 2017 with the CSO as part of its celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday.
“It’s tricky but I try commission someone every other year,” she said. “This doesn’t always happen, of course. It has to be organic.” Her next commission is a concerto by 40-year-old composer Andrew Norman, which she is scheduled to premiere in 2021.
At the same time, Josefowicz is always on the lookout for other new works that might catch her fancy. “Not all pieces have to be written for me in order for me to love and play them,” she said. The violinist has established herself as the go-to soloist for well-regarded concertos by John Adams, Thomas Adès and Oliver Knussen — all of which were premiered by other violinists. In April, she will present the British premiere of Helen Grime’s Violin Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic. “I love the piece, and I hope to bring it to many other places,” she said.
Josefowicz absorbed a big blow in 2018 with the death of Knussen, a composer and conductor with whom she had developed a deep musical relationship. The two performed various concertos together, including his, more than 30 times. “It was awful,” she said of his passing. “We were extremely close for 20 years. He was really at the core of me as a player — all the different repertoire I learned from him, the way he looked at music, heard music, studied music, his sheer love of music. Literally, he was a giant figure, but for not only me but musicians around the world, he was also a very important figure. We were sort of best friends. It’s still something I’m dealing with.”
She continues to champion Knussen’s works, including performances in December of his Concerto for Violin, Op. 30, with guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At the same time, her collaboration with Adès is blossoming. In addition to working with him as a conductor, she has started to perform recitals with him at the keyboard. In addition, he is writing a violin and piano work for them, which will be premiered in April at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.
“This is one of the things I love doing,” she said of performing with composers. “When you have a composer who is also a conductor, then that means you can work on the piece together and perform it together. To me, what could be more enriching? And that’s what I did with Oliver Knussen for 20 years.”