Josefowicz takes audience on a journey of discovery at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 04, 2017 at 1:17 pm

By Michael Cameron

Leila Josefowicz performed Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series.
Leila Josefowicz performed Friday night at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series.

In days of yore, the job description of a virtuoso included introducing new compositions from contemporaries, improvising cadenzas to concertos, and even composing works that tested the limits of their instruments beyond inherited standards. Contemporary business models suggest that such flights of fancy carry too much risk, and many violinists and pianists are content to cling to repertoire learned in their teens from mentors who did the same before them.

And then there are the restless souls like Leila Josefowicz, artists who break the cycle of endless regurgitation, refreshing the canon with commissions of new works, promoting neglected older works that failed to make the cut the first time around, and presenting arrangements of works from other mediums.

Last March Chicago audiences were treated to her riveting account of John Adams’ two-year-old Scheherazade.2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, an important work that deserves induction into the realm of standard violin repertoire. Like most of her concerts, her program Friday night at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall with pianist John Novacek was like no other, carrying as it did an invitation to her audience to join her on a mission of discovery.

There was reason to doubt a couple of her choices on paper, but she made a strong case for each of them with performances that were deeply committed, unfailingly compelling, and performed with such sure and confident technique that there was never a doubt about her ability to realize every physical hurdle.

Even the ordering of her program was mildly provocative, opening with the kind of bonbon that usually falls toward the end of a recital or as an encore. Sibelius’s Valse Triste (in an arrangement by Friedrich Hermann) from orchestral incidental music for the play Kuolema encapsulated her way with color, sadly dour one measure, gently lilting the next.

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor was the most familiar work on the program, and Josefowicz and Novacek delivered a reading that was judiciously paced and neatly balanced. The violinist was especially effective in the sonata’s dynamic extremes, with an eerily glassy timbre in quiet lyrical passages and the famous quicksilver slurred scales, to her strongly etched articulations in the finale, with severed bow hairs as evidence of her exertions.

Novacek was the perfectly simpatico partner, though there were passages that needed a more assertive touch. It was a cogent and sometimes moving traversal, if a bit stingy with the acerbity and irony that other duos have more explicitly mined from the score.

Kaija Saariaho’s 1995 violin concerto Graal Théâtre introduced musical materials that spawned other works by the composer, including Calices for violin and piano. The three movement derivation provides a compendium of Saariaho’s coloristic devices for violin, perfected through her own experience with the instrument. This tool box of trills, natural and artificial harmonics, glissandos, and countless other devices have become a bit of a clichė for the Finnish composer, but strong motivic development and inventive rhetorical interplay with the keyboard made for a compelling work, propelled by both artists’ control of the score’s intricate nuances.

Arranging Mahler’s signature Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5 might seem like a fool’s errand, and indeed there were moments in Otto Wittenbecher’s version for violin and piano where the duo was a poor substitute for the composer’s soft cushion of massed strings. But Josefowicz’s achingly tender reading of the opening and closing sections was reason enough for the unpromising reduction.

If three of the five works on the program began life as orchestral works, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s little known Violin Sonata from 1950 sounded as if it might have been originally conceived as a concerto, so comprehensive are the fireworks demanded of the soloist. The composer’s single claim to fame is his 1965 opera Die Soldaten, and few of his instrumental works have captured the fancy of prominent concerts artists.

But as jaded as we have become to overly confident declarations of important rediscoveries, this sonata is the real deal. The first movement opens with bold, energetic statements from both instruments before settling into an exploration of sharply contrasting sentiments. Zimmermann evokes a bit of Bartòkian nachtmusik in the second movement, with a soupçon of mid-century Germanic angst lending a hint of heft. One particularly vivid section in the barn-storming finale is marked Tempo di Rumba, and the duo had great fun with the latin excursion, unfazed by a maze of meter changes.

The duo again bucked tradition with an endearing encore performance of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The violinist spun the melody with touching delicacy while Novacek provided a cushion of Bill Evans-inspired harmonizations.

The University of Chicago Presents continues with the second installment of its Ligeti Series  7:30 p.m. November 10 at the Logan Center with the Imani Winds, Ensemble Dal Niente, violist Doyle Armbrust, and pianists Winston Choi and Kuang Hao-Huang. The chamber program includes Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, Sonata for Solo Viola, Three Pieces for Two Pianos, and Unsuk Chin’s Piano Etudes.

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