Violinist Josefowicz shines in Stravinsky and Tüür at Ravinia

Thu Aug 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leila Josefowicz performed a recital with pianist John Novacek Wednesday night at Ravinia.

The program notes for Leila Josefowicz’s recital at Ravinia displayed all the personality of a nutrition label. Phrases like “Stark piano octaves introduce a 12-note Andante phrase, whose steadily rising quarter notes are rhythmically varied by paired eighth notes” aren’t going to get young kids excited about classical music any time soon, and few were in attendance Wednesday night.

Not that program notes are a primary marketing tool, but it’s a shame nonetheless, given that the musically and physically demonstrative Canadian violinist is just the performer to win over youthful ears to composers like Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

The 32-year-old made her Carnegie Hall debut at 16, but it was made clear again Wednesday that Josefowicz has traveled far beyond her days as a child prodigy.

The violinist took the stage of Bennett-Gordon Hall in a stunning black-and-white dress resembling magnified thumbprints, to open the evening with Brahms’ Sonatensatz, the composer’s contribution to a birthday present for violinist Joseph Joachim. Though known for often adding a little grit to the bow, Josefowicz’s muscular handling of the opening theme and its returns seemed overly aggressive, even bordering on full distortion at moments. This fearlessness at the point of contact between bow hair and string would prove to be a more effective weapon of choice after intermission.

Following a somewhat monochromatic reading of Shostakovich’s lone Violin Sonata, Stravinsky’s Duo concertante led off the arresting second half, and here the violinist and her superlative pianist John Novacek took the audience by force and only released hostages after the encore.

The Russian composer’s score plays like a Broadway show, each movement with it’s own bewitching, bigger-than-life personality. One can almost hear a chorus singing with the piano’s hustle of alternating 16th-notes in the second movement, Eclogue I; after a schizophrenic fourth movement complete with fidgety left-hand pizzicatos, the music finds itself in an alternatingly majestic and thoughtful, post-battle conclusion. Josefowicz’s effortless transitions between chaos and serenity, rollicking gypsy dances and moments of quiet repose elicited quiet gasps throughout and was easily the highlight of the evening.

A close second was the only selection from a composer not yet six feet under, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Conversio. What begins as a groove tune, the kind of piece in which one has to—as the duo certainly did—find “the pocket,” eventually gives way to unison stabs of sound, separated by nail-bitingly wide lengths of silence. The choreography between Josefowicz and Novacek here was nothing short of remarkable, exploding each stillness with rifle-shot accuracy.

Closing the program with Schubert’s delightfully flirtatious Rondo brilliant in B minor—undeterred by an impossibly loud cell phone—the pair were brought back to the stage for a stunner of an encore, Charlie Chaplin’s sad-sweet Smile from his film Modern Times. Leaving the vibrato backstage, Josefowicz gracefully glided up and down the neck of the instrument, as Novacek’s jazz chords provided the melancholy landing pad, a dulcet end to the evening.

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