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Live Review: Leila Josefowicz Gives John Adams’ Violin Concerto Total Depth (2009.10.29)

josefowicz10_high-croppedJohn AdamsViolin Concerto comes across like a melodic discourse on gravitational forces, but a touch more tender. Alien tensions built slowly from the BSO, with little far-off explosions. The center around which this Adamonic universe whirled was Leila Josefowicz.

She’s the personal champion for this concerto, making it her signature piece, a task only a Hilary Hahn could envy.  She plays entirely from memory, giving full impression of a piece taken within — the raw stuff of notes — spit out with unexpected expression. I’d have to think even Adams is surprised at what she finds in it.

Without hearing a single other play it, I’m willing to bet she’s the definitive interpreter of the work. Who else could render this rhythmic riot of her 4/4 against the orchestra’s 3/4 without a hint of chaos?  I’ve never seen a modern concerto solo melody played with such unflagging conviction. She’s diamond-bright in her tonality. Pizzicato strings start popping around her and she just plays on, joyful bow in free motion, fierce, fast and full of sass.  Deft spasms twitch her shoulders and breast, yet she stands firm as a tree. Whipping branches are not suggested by arm movements but by flying notes.

Her solo moments bath one in a sense of strong stillness, well-adapted to the strangely non-emotional atmospheres Adams evokes. The end of the first movement is where the genius of this piece comes into being.  Reminds me of everything I adore in Gyorgy Ligeti without a hint of borrowing.

Tubular bells strike, breeching through to a shimmering Chaconnne: Body Through Which Dream Flows. An expansive trumpet (thanks to Andy Balio) creates a blossoming space; a spell broken by Leila’s eerie tones and the return of the bell.  The two spaces meet like a fast-dissipating cloud front. Woodwinds swirl and ripple. Synthesizer provides an undertow. We are nowhere and everywhere at once. Only we’re never lost.  Leila makes sure of that.

The Toccare is your traditional Toccata, absolutely rising on the back of sixteenth notes.  Leila crackles bright.  Her chin juts attack, like she’s biting notes into being, as much as bearing down on her bow.  All punk bands should study her stage presence, her divine driving precision. (Even BSO violinist Qing Li seemed to watch and learn, and was one of the first to clap). The final exchange of drum and Leila was perfectly timed. Her last solitary phrase sawed off time and space in such a way that we all gasped joyfully at the sudden release.

Robert Spano conducted, on loan for the night from the Atlanta Symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was the perfect vehicle to let Jonathan Carney sweep in and enrapture us.  He proved a lyrical storyteller with none of his usual pyrotechnics.  The Allegro Molto crowned the movements with a flashy dusting of musical paprika and saffron in the “Festival of Bagdad” until we raced on the back of an Arabian steed of sound to the finale.  Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite cinched this symphonic fairytale night. I think a few players were holding back in the Scheherazade, saving it up for the Adams. By the Firebird, they could fly home free. Their tones lush and lovingly paced by Spano with gentle ease. You might say the Adams’ concerto was the unworldly orphan between two dear Russian grannies — very much welcome into our hearts. How it got there? We’re not quite sure. It was a mystery.  Leila Josefowicz holds the key.

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2 Responses to “Live Review: Leila Josefowicz Gives John Adams’ Violin Concerto Total Depth (2009.10.29)”

  1. E.K. says:

    John Adams is one composer I can never get into. Not even Shaker Loops that much.

  2. Ed Mulvaney says:

    I saw Leila Josefowicz play this on December 6, 2009 with John Adams conducting the L A Philharmonic. I completely agree with what Sam Buker has to say (above). I consider this the most marvelous musical performance I have ever attended. LA Times’ reviewer Mark Swed captures it well, too: “. . . played brilliantly, calling up the electric violin’s deep cello drones as if in a peyote ceremony rising to heights of rapture.” I was struck by the structure of the electric violin and I wonder why I can’t find out more about it. By its appearance and the “deep cello drones” I believe this has to have more than four strings — or at least one extra, and that is worth comment. It would need a heavier string to get that cello sound and the visible knobs suggest fine-tuning abilities where the standard violin sound box is. The growl she evoked had a jazz-reference such that John Adams may have had in mind for the jazz violinist who played the premier of this marvelous and now extended performance.

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