Josefowicz hits late groove with contemporary works

Wed Nov 11, 2015 at 1:32 pm
Leila Josefowicz performed a recital at Zankel Hall Tuesday night. Photo: Nina Large

Leila Josefowicz performed a recital at Zankel Hall Tuesday night. Photo: Nina Large

“Interesting” is a slippery adjective that can be used to praise or sarcastically condemn; its mild sheen can make it hard to discern between the two.

It’s the ideal word to describe Tuesday night’s Zankel Hall recital from violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek, in the good sense that the playing was sincerely thought-provoking. It was not always successful, but the pitfalls were in the thinking, not the playing.

The musicians had a substantial set of ideas to present. Through music by de Falla, Messiaen, Schumann, Erkki-Sven Tüür, and John Adams, they made clear arguments for what they valued. At times, the music argued back.

The pair opened with Suite populaire espagnole, a transcription from de Falla’s Siete canciones populares espanolas made by Pawel Kochanski. It’s de Falla, full of lyrical life and accented rhythms, which played to the strengths of Josefowicz and Novacek. The violinist also played with a stimulating range of timbres, from grainy to sweet to a husky whisper.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations also engaged the musicians attraction towards strong rhythms, but the performance was hampered by Josefowicz’s sharp tuning, which approached the level of unbearably irritating in the music’s long, would-be graceful lines.

Similarly, the players’ ideas about Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105, were often at odds with what is in the score; the first movement, in particular, felt like a conflict between musicians and composer that no one won. Schumann marks the movement with a demand for “passionate expression,” and he backs that up with rhythms and accents that compel the musicians to move forward with intensity.

Josefowicz and Novacek played the music with an odd stately feel. Passion and dignity are not incompatible, and plenty of musicians convey that mix by playing the phrases with a slight ebb and flow of tempo, building a driving tension while keeping the structure and expression clear. In contrast, Josefowicz and Novacek smoothed over the phrases. The violinist muddled the syncopations, while the pianist made the stream of notes sound like a set of blocks, laid down one after another.

This was frustrating to hear, giving us neither Schumann nor a fully realized reinterpretation. The Allegretto was simple and subdued, welcomely normative yet indistinct. The final movement is a rondo with the manner of a toccata. This was strongly played, with a feeling of complete comity between musicians and score. In retrospect, it was clear Josefowicz and Novacek were looking for music where they could combine pulse and rhythm into a strong sense of horizontal movement—that was the overall style of the second half of the concert, which was superb.

Tüür’s Conversio is a compelling work that one would like to hear again and again. It begins with the violin repeating short, rhythmic phrases, kicked along with wisely placed accents. There are quiet, precise chords in the piano, and while the music sounds delicate, the structure is clearly made of steel. As the piece moves along, the music grows denser, tension builds, everything gets more interesting. The violin briefly takes flight in songful outbursts.

As the music grows more crunchy and complex, it becomes clear that the piece is much more than an exercise in building activity. The music breaks through into a completely different idea, a kind of fantasia that overwhelms the original music. The piece ends by dissolving with the lingering effect of a rich dream.

Josefowicz and Novacek played the music with skill and fire, which they stoked even further with the finale, John Adams’ Road Movies. The two have already produced the reference recording of this piece, on the Nonesuch label, and hearing them in person was better still.

The music is Adams at his best. Unclouded by any heavy-handed social or political messages, it moves like a beautifully designed and finely tuned sports car in the fast lane, ticking off the mile markers and building momentum. The middle movement, “Meditative,” indulges in a sensual ease with its own satisfaction in the journey. The sense of purposeful motion in the music, the beauty of a machine in action, evokes Stravinky’s Symphony in Three Movements and King Crimson’s song “Neal and Jack and Me”—night lights reflected off a hood ornament, the existential freedom of the open road. The performance matched the conceptual and aesthetic power and pleasures of the composition.

There was an unfortunate encore, Claus Ogerman’s painfully bathetic arrangement of Chaplin’s “Smile,” which proved an astonishing musical experience. Just not in a good way.

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