Everything is new – Interview with Leila Josefowicz

Leila Josefowicz portrait by © Tom Zimberoff

The American violinist Leila Josefowicz is a cultural phenomenon. For the past twenty five years now, she has been a relentless champion of a vast catalogue of music of our time, including notable works by John Adams, Thomas Adès, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, Steven Mackey, Luca Francesconi and Matthias Pintscher, many of them written for her. 

Commissioning and performing new repertoire has been an essential part of Josefowicz’s artistic mission throughout her career. Chatting on a rehearsal break, the violinist describes the outlines and details of her modus operandi

”It’s been the richest way to experience music. When you are actually collaborating, it becomes extremely intimate in the artistic and spiritual sense. You have something that is exploding within somebody and it has to come on to the page. Their life is told in this, and it is extremely personal. And I have to respect that. I have to take so much information and turn that into something that people hear. It’s so much more than music is, per se; you’ll bring it to life, and it is about life. 

So, who you’re working with, it’s different every time. Some people want to share everything. Everything! They want to come to me and run every thing by me. EP [Salonen] wanted to do that. He wanted to share everything. And then are some composers, who compose as they feel best without anybody or anything. Which, again, I have to respect, as long as I get the music on time.”

While fostering the composer’s creative impetus is crucial for Josefowicz, collaborations are two-way streets, requiring delicate balancing between text and commentary.  

”I only interject with the writing, if it’s impossible. Impossible is different than difficult; those two things must be kept very separated. People thought the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was impossible, when actually it it possible. The difficulty is part of the music. To have something that is not difficult, the music is killed. Music is difficult. Everything is difficult! I only say something, when it is really outside of the limitations of what is technically possible, when it is really, truly impossible. 

If the composer wants a certain thing, something what they hear, then it’s important. We can’t discount it. We have to honour it! Maybe you screw it up, because it’s hard, but it’s part of the music; it’s my mistake, but it’s part of the music. I have great responsibility. Sometimes I think, oh, this really is difficult, I could have changed that. But then I think, it wasn’t a mistake not say something about that to the composer, because it’s part of the music. But it’s a risk that I take every time.”

For a performer, facing difficulty comes down to facing fear itself.

”The thing is, what you feel, when things are difficult. You have a certain aspect of fear, when something is difficult. You fear it may not come across as you wanted to or you may make a mistake. But if you bow to fear, then fear wins. And you can’t let fear win. You always have to look at it in the eye. If you don’t look at it in the eye, then you become weaker and weaker and weaker and weaker. And before you know it, you’re in the corner of the room. You have to confront! This is extremely important, artistically; we must confront! Let’s face it, performing is difficult. You have to confront the fears you have. It’s not that we have less fears, it’s just that we have ways of confronting the fears. And that’s what makes the greatest of music happen, when you’re ready to fight!”

On her path to the realm of contemporary music, picking up John Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993) was a key moment for Josefowicz. Since its 1994 world premiere in Minnesota, the concerto has become a contemporary classic, in no small part thanks to Josefowicz’s continued advocacy.    

”It was the first really big leap that I took after I graduated the Curtis Institute. At that time, Curtis was very old-fashioned, very. So there I was, urging people to program this piece; arguing with people, who weren’t used to thinking of a newer work. Back then, people were used to thinking ’oh, this piece had its premiere performances, so it’s done now and it’s not going to be played for a while’. It was kind of this feeling.

And I was just like, wait, are you kidding me? Because, if that’s the way we thought about every piece of music, nothing will get played. It’s is ridiculous, actually. And not only ridiculous, but it’s stupid. So, come on!”

Eventually, Josefowicz got her way with the piece, and the rest is history. 

”John heard one of my very first performances of the concerto, and then, all of a sudden, it was amazing, because after that, many, many times a year, we played together this piece around the world. For me this was just like the sky opening. It was like a religious experience for me, because I’d never worked with a living composer before. Suddenly, music was alive and breathing, and this was the creator, and I got to play with him. So, this was the start for me, when I was twenty, twenty-one years old. It was a whole different world for me to enter. And I knew this was the path for me.”

The long-standing creative collaboration between Adams and Josefowicz has been a mutually rewarding one. In our recent talk, the composer spoke about his admiration and respect for her. 

”I’ve known Leila for 25 years, maybe, and she’s a very, very special person. She had very difficult times in her life, when she was little. She sort of followed the road of a glamorous young virtuoso, until she did this amazing thing, at an early age, when she was in her early twenties; she just decided that she did not want to play the Tchaikovsky concerto any more. What she wanted to do, was to just do new music.

Just to give you an example, some years ago, we were together in Montreal, with the Montreal Symphony. She was playing my piece for the electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur. And the following week, she was going to play the Adès concerto somewhere, and the week after that, she was premieringEsa-Pekka’s concerto. And everything from memory! Now, she’s not someone who learns like that, like Simon Rattle, who looks at something and has got it learned. She has to work and work and work and work, note by note. But that’s the kind of devotion she has.”

Following all those years on the road with the Violin Concerto, which Josefovicz has given in concert for more than a hundred times, Adams wrote her a fifty-minute dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, Scheherazade.2 (2014). Based on a loose musical narrative of a wise young women pursued by religious zealots, the score presents the audiences with gripping social commentary, laid out with compelling musical argument. Since its world premiere in March 2015, Josefowicz has performed the piece in concert over fifty times. She has also made two recordings of it, an album first with David Robertson conducting the St Louis Symphony, followed by audio and video accounts of a Berlin Philharmonic performance with the composer at the podium. 

”It’s a huge piece. There are not very many pieces like that, I would say. And it’s just as difficult for the conductor as it is for the soloist. It’s a really virtuosic piece for everybody. I’ve had a great time with John, doing this new thing together.”

Leila Josefowicz performing John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 with The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by the composer. © by Roger Mastroianni

As a part of Josefowicz’s first season with Scheherazade.2, she performed the piece on several times on a European tour with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and their then Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu, one of her trusted stage partners. Looking back at the tour, the conductor accounts the performances among the finest of his eight-year tenure with the FRSO. 

”Leila had only just premiered the fifty-minute thing and she already had the entire score completely memorised. She must have an exceptional memory capacity. She’s always there, musically, right on the spot, in perfect rhythm and immaculate pitch. The most astonishing thing is that, on an emotional level, she has completely internalised everything. In rehearsal, she just picks up any detail, even though she doesn’t have a score anywhere at hand.”  

In addition to newly-commissioned pieces by Adams, Salonen and Mackey, Lintu and Josefowicz have also teamed up for some of the 20th century classics as well, including Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Violin Concerto (1950), which they also recorded,and, most recently, the Berg Violin Concerto (1935). Their first joint project was Thomas Adès’s Violin Concerto Concentric Paths (2005).    

”It may not be that big a piece, but the score is full of intricate, pointillist detail. We had some difficulty with the end of the first movement, where the solo part is interwoven with various interjections from the percussion section. And she just laid it all down from memory, pointing out which instrument goes where and how it would be best for me to rehearse it. That’s when I fully understood, just how deep her musical insight really goes.” 

Memorising and internalising scores in their entirety is an organic part of Josefowicz learning curve.

”The Adès concerto, for example, it’s very complex, in many ways, but it’s not any more complex than the Beethoven, the Brahms or the Stravinsky concertos, it’s just different. It’s a language that is not known as well as some other musical languages. When I study a new work, I make sure that I know it as well as I know the standard works I went to school learning. I need to know every work as well as those. It’s not OK to not know something well just because it’s new. So this is actually a really simple mentality. So, if I have memorised Beethoven, then I should try to memorise Adès. If I’ve memorised Brahms or Mozart, I should memorise Berg.

It takes a lot of time to do that, and, I think, most people do not devote that kind of time. Working on piece, which, at first, is completely unfamiliar, and getting to a point, where it is completely familiar, takes a lot of OCD checking, which I do a lot. Whenever I  have a new score to learn, I have to always keep going in my head all the time. If I go to the grocery store, I take the score with me, because I might have to check something, while I’m shopping. 

There’s certain kind of thinking that goes into the study, and if I don’t fix the question mark right away, then becomes bigger, and that’s not good. So I have to just check and then rewind the tape and then have another go with it. I need to keep this is always happening in my head. I don’t want it to stop. Study is like this; something is rolling, and you have to keep it always moving. So I do that.”

Leila Josefowicz perfroming Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. © Jari Kallio

One of the classics in Josefowicz’s repertoire for this season has been the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1931), which she has been performing all the way from San Francisco to Helsinki. Oddball in many ways, Stravinsky’s concerto is rooted in the composer’s highly personal take on the neoclassical idiom.

”It’s superficially broke, this is what Stravinsky has said about this piece. And then you think, what does this actually mean? It’s a strange, ironic thing to say. So you have to think with humour, actually. This was said with some humour. And then, I think, actually, this piece was written also with some humour. If you continue this thought process, then a lot of wit must be used to make this piece really work. I mean, if you play it really in an academic, broke kind of way, then much of the character is actually lost. So, it really becomes a piece that is extremely personal to each player. 

And if you find all the hidden innuendo, then it becomes a piece that is really letting your personality shine. So this is what I love with this piece; I feel, I can be fully myself, let the music speak, and let me also speak. Of course, everyone has a different path with this piece. 

I think, one of the reasons, why this piece is not played very often, could that it’s got so many unexpected twists and turns; always something changes, and it changes fast, much like Mozart changes fast. The mood keeps changing fast in Bach too, but here we have the 20th century version of this kind of music, in which things are spontaneous, and the harmony is always unexpected, but with that little, illusory reference to the Baroque style. 

Emotionally, it is a very complex piece of music. But, I think, the general feeling of the piece is very joyful, and it really should bring smile and joy to the public.”

The concerto is based on an unusual overall form, with flamboyant outer movements, a toccata and a capriccio, framing two arias, both adopting more introverted tone. Interestingly, all four movements open with what the composer called his ’passport chord to the concerto’. Not only does the chord launch each movement, but it keeps appearing throughout the entire score.  

”The signature chord is a wonderful thing, because it’s not really so much a harmony, but it’s a sound. It’s a harmony too, of course, but I don’t think of it as a chord. I think of it as a sound. There’s this sound that keeps coming back, until it becomes something that is recognisable. So, you always have this sound as sort of like the anchor, the reference point, and then something changes. Since you have this familiarity, the unfamiliarity becomes really interesting.

But I’m not talking about it as a composition thing. It’s more about experimenting with sound, just on the most basic, elemental way; you have this thing that hits you in the brain and is like texture. All things will depart from this and then come back to this one sound again. This is, for me, very interesting compositional concept that Oliver Knussen also used very very often in his music. This is why Stravinsky is the god of music! He established things that no composer after him can measure up to. Poor posterity; what more can be said? But we try! [laughs].

In life, I don’t always like to listen to music all the time, it’s too much for my head. But I listen to sounds and hear them as music. I love to think of music as textures. I love the word ’tactile’. In the presto of the coda, especially the beginning of this new section, I’m asking everyone to play it as a texture and really not focus on what the notes are at all. 

This is very anti-western training, very anti-classical music training, in many ways. When we begin to play an instrument, our training is naturally very much about doing the right things to get the right technique to play the music; one has to develop a good sound on the instrument. But then there comes a point, when your training is so refined and so sophisticated that you begin to see things and hear things not in one way, but in so many different ways all the time. There are infinite possibilities to play something, whether it is something new or something older.”

For a performer, the art of listening is of key importance. There are, in fact, several ways of listening needed, in order to get to the core of the music. 

”One of the things that is really exciting, is that there is this way of listening, which is absolutely uneducated listening. And the most educated musicians have to listen this way too, when there’s a new piece that we’ve never heard before. If you listen to a brand new piece for the first time or a piece that is older for the first time, you are listening in a different way than if you knew the piece before.

People have to do sight-reading, read the piece off the music for the first time, and it can be exciting. But then there’s sight-listening, which is doing the same thing, but with listening only, with your ears only. And this is very exciting, because if you are into music, if you love music, if you’re a musicologist or musician, you have an encyclopaedia in your head of things that you’ve heard for years before, in your experience and life with music before, and this gives you kind of synapses for how you hear a piece for the first time without the knowledge of it, without education of that piece before. 

It’s all about music being not a thing that one studies or one is educated about, but a thing that is much more immediate. It just grabs you and doesn’t let you think, doesn’t allow you to think; it makes you experience. This is the idea of what great music does. You’re not sitting and like ’oh, this structure is so amazing’ or ’the harmony is so amazing’. When it is that amazing, you don’t think that it’s amazing, you’re just amazed. You’re not conscious about it, you’re taken away with it. 

This is what I missed so much during the pandemic, when we didn’t have live music. Everyone needs some distraction in life. We need help in life. It’s actually very simple; we need help. We need things that take us away from routines. Music takes us away from obligations and pleasures. Music takes us into a different realm; being in the moment. And this we didn’t have. We did not have many things to take as away to the moment. And this was hard, very hard.”

Leila Josefowicz photographed by © Tom Zimberoff

The pandemic became a transformative experience for Josefowicz.   

”At first, I thought, yeah it’s great, I’ll have a break, how wonderful. I was so tired before the pandemic. I was doing too many concerts, actually, and I was getting very tired. However, after about two or three months, it was no good any more. But this is a very self-centred way to talk about it. 

The world went into emergency mode, where music became health-censored. Music was not important. And it shouldn’t be important, when people are dying. Health is the most important. So, we needed to take all the time we needed, to keep everyone safe. 

We became artistically censored, in a certain way. But for us, there wasn’t someone to point a finger at. There wasn’t a bad leader. There wasn’t a bad dictator, who said, ’no music’, but health said, ’no music’. And health is not a bad figure. Health is a good figure. We were very lost, artistically lost. Our self-importance was squashed like an ant by a boot. Our egos were squashed. This was the way it was, and we had to accept this.

So, I think, artists are humbler, maybe, in a certain way, at least I am. I was always humble, but not really in this way. This was a new way to be humble. I think, I am a better artist because of it. The existence is different, for everyone. And when the existence is different, the music is different. The public listens differently and the players play differently. So this is something very interesting.”

During the pandemic, Josefowicz was invited by The Metropolitan Museum to perform solo for a filmed concert project, available on Youtube. Her chosen programme features the world premiere performance of Matthias Pintscher’s La linea evocativa (2020), subtitled A Drawing for Solo Violin, alongside Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720).    

”I had actually never played Bach professionally in my career. During the pandemic, I had to turn myself inside out and do a lot of thinking and existential struggling. Not being able to play for anybody made me feel very useless. When I had to start finding music that I could just play alone, I thought this was really a good excuse to study Bach. 

This was really a hidden miracle for me to discover the other side of myself artistically, which is that, actually, Bach does belong to me. For many, many years, I felt that it’s not me or I don’t get it or it does not speak to me. But then, finally, without anyone telling me, what I have to do, what I should do, what I am supposed to do – all this woulda, shoulda, coulda, the umbrella of the enforced stylistic behaviour gone – I just did what I wanted. 

And then came this opportunity to play at The Met Museum and I then became very scared, of course. The idea was to play new music in front of old art and old music in front of new art. So there was this new piece commissioned from Matthias Pintscher, and it was performed in front of renaissance sculptures in the Vélez Blanco Patio. And theBach Partita was filmed in front of the Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko paintings.

It was so inspiring for me! It was done when the museum was closed, so no one was there, except for the crew. It was really like meditation on all kinds of complete spiritual and physical exposure, in a very vulnerable and very powerful, human way. I felt like I was completely naked in front of Jackson Pollock. It was something that required great courage. In some ways much courage than playing something more new. It was really like inviting all viruses to enter, and yet strong enough to shield all negative energy. It was very powerful musical experience and it really changed me as a player.” 

Although the performance might have remained a glorious one-off, it indeed became a part of Josefowicz’s post-pandemic repertoire. In April, she performed the Bach and Pintscher coupling again at Wigmore Hall in London, this time for live, in-house audience. 

”When I do Bach, I play like it was written today. Everything is new. That’s my mental way.”

© Jari Kallio

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