Philadelphia Revisited

Classic Arts Features   Philadelphia Revisited
Violinist Leila Josefowicz returns to The Philadelphia Orchestra as Artist-in-Residence.


Armed with her 1724 del Ges‹ violin, a thrilling list of repertoire old and new, and undeniable star power, violinist Leila Josefowicz can't wait to return to Philadelphia. This season, she will appear with The Philadelphia Orchestra as its 2011 _12 Artist-in- Residence. "It's an honor for me to come back to this city where I spent six years of my life studying, to be able to give back the gift of something new," she says.

Josefowicz first came to Philadelphia 20 years ago, as a 13-year-old prodigy in search of a voice. Her entire family relocated from California to a threebedroom apartment on Rittenhouse Square so their hyper-talented Leila could attend the Curtis Institute of Music, which she did while studying for a high school degree at the Masterman School. She quickly made an impact. At 15 she played Saint-SaêŠns's Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with the Orchestra, then led by Maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch, in a performance that tagged her as a teenage phenomenon.

Since then Josefowicz has risen to the top ranks of a new generation of solo violinists, by combining her dynamic virtuosity with a fresh approach to repertoire. She's excited about performing for the many different audiences in Philadelphia and immersing herself in the musical life of the city. This residency means that in upcoming months Josefowicz will be something of a familiar face around town, in a series of concerts from Verizon Hall to the waterfront. "We are eager to find creative avenues for artists to make deeper musical connections than just a single weekend run of concerts playing a single concerto. We have to foster the creativity of this next great generation of artists," says Jeremy Rothman, the vice president of artistic planning at The Philadelphia Orchestra. "And Leila is among them."

Josefowicz's first performance was at Verizon Hall on October 6 for The Philadelphia Orchestra's Fourth Annual Free College Concert, when she and the Orchestra presented a diverse program for college students. She hoped that her intrepid approach to repertoire found a good reception with a younger generation of music lovers. If anything, she's keen to shatter preconceptions about what classical music is. She's not about to abandon the traditions, but she's determined to build on them. Josefowicz chose to mix and match newer repertoire with some golden-age classics. She played orchestrated versions of Fritz Kreisler's beloved "Liebesleid" and "Leibesfreud": sentimental themes that the famous violinist would often play as encores at his concerts. She also played Massenet's "Meditation" from ThaÇs. And then Josefowicz performed the third movement, Toccare, from John Adams's 1993 Violin Concerto: a dazzling display of spiraling violin over a pulsating orchestral backdrop. Josefowicz was excited about this mix, and trusted that her listeners were "blown away by a new piece they didn't know."

She played similar repertoire with the Orchestra in a free concert at Penn's Landing on October 9, when she shared her gifts with an audience of thousands. For her it was a unique opportunity to reach beyond the walls of the concert hall and perform for a wider community. All she wanted was for listeners to come with an open mind, and she promised that the music: even if was written in the last 20 years: would do the rest. "It's important for people not to make judgments," she says of the newer work she presented. "To experience and to want to have a new experience is very important."

And when she uses the word "new," Josefowicz isn't joking. With a promise to stir things up, the violinist has made it her musical mission to bring exciting new works for the violin to the fore. She counts The Philadelphia Orchestra among the brave and the bold, willing to take a chance on less than traditional repertoire that she thinks is the lifeblood of any 21st-century orchestra. "They've been really supportive about my new projects," says Josefowicz. "And this is what I cherish about great orchestras, they will go on a journey in my direction: the new music direction."

She has fond memories of attending concerts at the Academy of Music, The Philadelphia Orchestra's old home until 2001, luxuriating in the famously rich "Philadelphia Sound" that made such an impression on her as a teenager. "They're all amazing musicians and they have a legacy. The Academy did something for their sound because they had to work for it," she says, referring to the acoustics of the old hall.

Inevitably, those experiences listening to the Orchestra were formative for the young Josefowicz. Following in that vein, the violinist now wants to encourage and support emerging talent. On March 24, 2012, she'll be hosting a Family Concert with four young musicians: winners of the Philadelphia Orchestra Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition: who will each be performing with the Orchestra. The talented musicians: in their early teens to 20s: include pianist Ethan Lee (Children's Division), mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges (vocal division), flutist Niles Watson (Junior Division), and oboist Alexander Vvedenskiy (senior division). They'll be interviewed on stage by Josefowicz: who'll lend her moral and musical support as only a former prodigy can: in addition to performing in front of friends and family.

Josefowicz credits her former teachers and role models with her own musical development. She studied with some of the very best at Curtis, including legendary musicians like Felix Galimir and Jascha Brodsky, whose musical knowledge extended all the way back to the musical innovations of the early 20th century. Galimir was friends with Alban Berg and earned the composer's admiration by performing his seemingly unplayable Lyric Suite; Brodsky took Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 on tour, with the composer conducting. "These guys aren't alive anymore and I feel I'm one of the lucky ones to have learned from them," says Josefowicz. "I got the fairytale end of that."

Steeped in this grand tradition, Josefowicz made a remarkable decision just after graduation from Curtis. Having mastered much of the standard repertoire: she made her Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 16, playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields: she decided to focus her playing on newer, contemporary works for the violin. "I felt there was this chasm between me and the music I was playing," she says.

In her early 20s, while she was pregnant (with her son, Lukas), Josefowicz decided to fill the time learning John Adams's Violin Concerto. "I had several months free and it was a huge distraction learning a great new work," she says. "I did it my way, in my style, learning it from memory and word got back to John," she says. That was the first contemporary staple on her performance list, and since then she's been diligent about performing more (works by Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ads) and commissioning new works, including Steven Mackey's violin concerto, Beautiful Passing, and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, which Josefowicz will perform with The Philadelphia Orchestra in three concerts next March (29, 30, 31).

Salonen's Concerto promises more sonic rapture. The violinist, who had long admired the Finnish composer's music, says she first requested the Concerto in a "fan letter" to him: "If you were ever to write a piece for me, I'd put everything into it!" she wrote. Finally in 2008, Salonen agreed and wrote the piece, collaborating closely with the eager violinist who kept calling him for more pages of music to work on. She premiered the piece in 2009, with the composer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic (of which he was music director at the time) at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Los Angeles Times heaped praise on the work calling it "pure, euphonic poetry with a singular sound and voice," and lauded Josefowicz for her virtuosic and visceral performance from memory. "The more Josefowicz turns to modern music _ã_ the more a phenomenon she seems with each new piece," the review concluded.

The violinist can't speak too highly of working in tandem with a composer, "the positive energy of two people being creative together." She considers Salonen's halfhour Concerto her own personal violin adventure. "It's a piece that showcases the player: my sound, my style, my technique, and the way I try to tell a story," she says. "There are some unbelievable sounds in there that we haven't heard before."

A day after the subscription concert series concludes, Josefowicz will curate a Chamber Concert at Perelman Theater on April 1, and perform along side members of The Philadelphia Orchestra. We can expect Josefowicz to select a program that will thrill and delight with unexpected works, in keeping with her musical mission. All she asks is that listeners give the unfamiliar a chance. "If people don't know the work, they will have to trust me!" she says, with evident delight. "For me, this is about exploration. I have to stick to my course because if I do hopefully it will inspire other people to go along this route."

Today’s Most Popular News: