Making modern matter with Leila Josefowicz

Leila Josefowicz. Photo: Chris Lee

Leila Josefowicz has been playing the violin since she was a young child. Her talent surfaced quickly and she was soon immersed in track that would take her onto the world stage.

Like many young violin soloists, she played the great concertos and sonatas —  Beethoven, Brahms and the like all through her time at institutions such as the Curtis Institute of Music where she studied with — ahem —where she studied with Jaime LaredoJascha BrodskyFelix Galimir and Joseph Gingold.

And then she asked herself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Turns out there was more to discover.

Josefowicz has become a passionate player of and exponent for new music. She is bringing that commitment to the works of the 20th and 21st centuries to the National Arts Centre on Jun 6 and 7 in a rather unusual concert that will feature an entire evening of contemporary music from British composers Anna Clyne, James MacMillan and Oliver Knussen, along with Thomas Adès Violin Concerto aka  Concentric Paths, which Josefowicz will play. (She performed it in 2011 at the NAC).

She was at home in the Hamptons when she spoke with ARTSFILE about her musical passion.

“I have always been drawn to new music through my years of training.”

Josefowicz grew up as a prodigy “doing the show-piece violin work and the standard works which I love.”

But “from an aesthetic point of view, an intellectual point of view and some sort of a daredevil point of view, since I had already done so many of the show pieces by my late teens, I wanted to do more unexplored music.”

She said she is drawn to the unexpected and likes spontaneity in her playing and in her repertoire. She also doesn’t like that feeling of comfortable complacency that can settle in when one plays the same older repertoire over and over again.

She likes the uncertainty of the new.

“I found that very, very attractive.” She also likes introducing audiences to music they haven’t heard before, “even though that may cause some trepidation. For me it also was very much a self-preservation choice as well.”

She also believes that for the art to advance new music needs to be performed.

“I think we are on our way. We have been very behind for a very long time. The music written now needs strong advocates and it needs the standard to be set very high.”

She says that there is a misperception about new music that suggests it is not done with the same care as the classic works.

“The art form needs new music very much and I’m trying to do my part to help set a standard for that and hopefully others will follow in my footsteps.”

She does see more daring and courage in theatre and visual art than there is in classical music creation and performance.

“Why not bring that to the classical music stage.” People will get it, she believes.

“If I was going to spend my life playing the violin, I wanted to make a difference and not follow in other peoples footsteps.”

When one does play a lot of new music, there is an interesting engagement with the mind of a composer and with all musical forms.

“I love all kinds of music. I love rock and jazz almost anything that is high quality and well delivered. All these forms have all influenced each other.

“We do touch each other’s territory. I play music and interpret as I hear it and it turns out well. New music caters to that approach.”

Does she have people to whom she listens?

“Actually I don’t listen to music that much unless I am studying or I’m listening to Neil Young or Amy Winehouse. I am very attracted to the organic quality of some musicians.

“If you can compose as organically as Bob Dylan sings a song you are doing well. There is a natural, humane and spontaneous quality that the great performers have in whatever field.”

Making a piece such as the Adès concerto sound natural takes a deep understanding of the score, she said. That requires time and energy.

“You could say the same for Beethoven or Bach or almost any genre of music. It takes a basic and genuine enthusiasm for music to get there.”

She takes her personality (“I can’t help but do that, of course”) and blends with it what she has learned from the composition.

“The fact I love this stuff so much and I have a clear purpose definitely helps.”

That she plays around the world speaks to the success of her commitment to new work. She can’t do it alone. She needs conductors who agree and are willing to take on such a big commitment.

“There are people who do understand what I am doing with my music and I am very appreciative of that. They know my projects and they know my repertoire. In this art form it is so important” to hear new music.

She said this approach has evolved. These days her management says she doesn’t “offer” Beethoven and Brahms in any season to come. She is offering Stravinsky or Berg and all these new composers.

“If you want Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, you have a list of about 20 violinists who will give it to you at the drop of a hat. Why would I do that?”

She calls herself a “deliberate” risk-taker. For example, she rockclimbs with ropes.

As a mother of three, “I know what the risks are. You don’t just do something ridiculous. I don’t think this choice of repertoire is a risk. It is essential. I never saw it as risky. I saw it as a path I had to take for my own musical self-preservation.”

She has Canadian connections. Her parents met at the University of Guelph and she was born in Mississauga. But the family moved to California when Josefowicz was three. Members of her parents’ families live across Canada from Vancouver to Montreal.

Even though she lives in New York, she feels a connection to Canada, in part because she performs here often “and whenever I play up there I have family members come and visit me.” She is regularly in Ottawa and Toronto.

And she carries a Canadian passport. “I do feel stronger towards Canada than anywhere else except the U.S.”

Leila Josefowicz
Where: Southam Hall
When: June 6 and 7 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.