Feisty, intense, imaginative: whatever your opinion on contemporary classical music, listening to violinist Leila Josefowicz you can’t help but feeling transported right into the thick of it. A MacArthur Fellowship recipient for her unique contributions to the repertoire, Josefowicz's role as advocate for new violin music has shaped everything she does.

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee

Josefowicz started playing at a young age, and by her teens she was already performing all over the globe. “I was a child prodigy, which I think in the 1980s was somewhat less rare than it is now,” she laughs. It's pouring with rain in New York when we talk on the phone, yet the energy and friendliness in her voice fill the room all the way to London. “From my teens I was more and more attracted to the unexpected, to the unconventional, spontaneous, adventurous. I wanted to have people not depend on familiarity when listening to something that I was doing. This shaped the path that I have gone on, a path that makes me feel like I am contributing to the art form as well as doing something that I think personally is exciting. The very early training that I had, which was so essential, and the very in-depth study of the standard repertoire, did affect the way I heard music, the way I played. Part of this early training involved comparative listening, which is very interesting and educational, but I thought it was not really good for my soul because I really wanted to be doing something unique.”

And there is not a more unique and pioneering path she could have gone on. Her encounter with British composer Oliver Knussen, a giant of his generation, was seminal. “Oliver Knussen, who we lost few months ago and who I miss terribly, was one of my oldest and best friends and inspiration,” she tells me, “and to say that he greatly impacted my mentality around music would be an understatement.”

Today, Josefowicz is the violinist of choice of composers such as John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Colin Matthews, Steven Mackey and Luca Francesconi – all writing pieces for her. A champion of contemporary scores, Josefowicz feels strongly about the importance of musical progress. “Does one expects the next Apple iPhone to be more advanced and current than the previous one? Do people get excited when going to an amazing new art show, or wait in line to see Gucci’s new season?” she says. “Great art is being created right now and we have to make sure that we remain truly alive in today’s age rather than depending on the past. There is incredible music being composed today. Let me be a messenger of it."

"It's important, in order for art to thrive, that we remain current, that we are curious, and curiosity is perhaps the most important word. If you call me a musical explorer, I discover as I go. You have to be ready for different kind of experiences than what you have had before and you won’t know quite what those are going to be until you are sort-of in the middle of it."

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee

To a casual listener, or someone more used to traditional classical scores, contemporary pieces can prove challenging. But the challenge is part of the experience: audiences are no longer expected to just sit back and listen but are invited to be part of the conversation happening on stage.

“There is a different way of listening when you are not relying on things you have heard before. You are actually opening your ears and your mind to something that you know will not be something that you are familiar with. When I play a majority of my pieces, I don’t even have the score with me: that helps me to feel free and to communicate what the music is asking. Not only is the audience part of this, but the orchestra has to play and listen in a different way than if they were playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. There is something refreshing and liberating about that. There is no convention or tradition holding us back.”

Even if a fresh listener might not know the works themselves or the composers, she explains, being aware of the creativity around the world is already a step forward. “There are so many composers in the world, and the language does differ a bit from country to country, like a spoken language. There isn’t one path. If one is ready to explore, the world is boundless. Look at it in the context of what we expect in life: we want the next generation, the next evolution, the next development… we expect that in other areas of life, so why not expect that in music?”

Josefowicz's passion and commitment are acclaimed all over the world. In his memoir Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American LifeJohn Adams says of her playing his Violin Concerto: “Leila took the concerto to heart [...] finding rhythmic shadings and expressive possibilities that even its composer had never realised were implicit in the music. [...] Her mesmerising performances became a model for how a serious new instrumental work could indeed achieve repertoire status through the determined advocacy of an exceptionally talented artist.”

Adams wrote Scheherazade.2 specifically for Josefowicz: an update on the Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, it takes the woman out of the fairy tale in a powerful score where the violin fights the orchestra every stroke of the way. The strong social and political aspect of this piece was highlighted in several performances, including when it played in Amsterdam and Syrian refugees were invited to be part of the audience.

Josefowicz has performed Scheherazade.2 over fifty times since premiering the work in 2015, and more stagings are planned this year. Yet every time is a new journey. “Life changes for everyone, constantly. Great pieces of music have a way of revealing themselves to you as you perform them, or as you listen to them. They stay part of the human experience and speak to us in different ways at different times. Spem in Alium, by Thomas Tallis, could not be a more powerful work: it was hundreds of years ago and it is now. That’s because there are so many ways in which one can listen to it. And that’s what makes a piece great.”

When a new piece is created for her, Josefowicz puts her instrumental knowledge at the service of the compositional process. “I have been very lucky because I’ve had wonderful collaborations with all of the composers who have written for me. Each composer is a universe: the minds are so different and so are the interactions. With my knowledge of playing the instrument I try to assist in making their work the absolutely strongest it can be. It’s something I take extremely seriously: I have never met a composer who did not mean exactly what they wrote, and I think that all composers can tell that this is my passion. Using that word is a bit of a cliché but it’s true. It's something that I live for in music. I’ve never had any tension of any kind, that’s for sure, just the opposite. Just working together, excited because both of our hearts are 100% committed. Sounds like marriage," she laughs.

After so many successful collaborations, it would seem like a natural transition to go from playing to composing.“It's an interesting thought to have,” she says. “I know so much about composition but at the same time I know the demands that it puts on the composer: the effort, the time, the commitment and the energy that it takes, which I feel like I do not have at this time. It’s intimidating for composers, so I would be triply intimidated. I do have ideas sometimes, but I have not written them down as of yet.”

With a recent Avery Fisher Prize win under her belt, Josefowicz's schedule is tightly packed. Future performances include 20th-century Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D (among the oldest pieces in her repertoire, but one she still finds incredibly fun to play), John Adams' Sheherazade.2 in Norway, Knussen's Violin Concerto in London, Adès' Concentric Paths and, of course, more new works. 

“The most important thing that I always have to remember is that I am starting from the beginning every time. This is like a spoken language: there are different grammatical things that go into it and different ways in which one can learn it and be eloquent. It's very humbling because when I receive a score it’s a whole new adventure. It's just the explorers on their boats going into unknown territory. And that’s part of the discovery, part of the process. And that’s the excitement of it, that’s why I am doing it.”