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Classical review: Leila Josefowicz and John Novaeck


The Kilbourn Concert Series at Eastman School of Music took a decidedly raw turn on Tuesday, when violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novaeck took the stage. The ensuing recital featured all the virtuosic proficiency and technical fireworks you would expect from a top-tier international soloist like Josefowicz, but there was a rough-hewn edginess to her musicianship that diverged from the conventionally beautiful sounds of a typical recital and its standard fare.

The program began with the accessible melodies of Jean Sibelius's "Valse Triste," which featured a strange blend of pathos and vibrancy that set the tone for the remainder of the concert. Josefowicz's diligent approach accentuated the composer's rustic flair.

But it was Josefowicz's stunning interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor that left the lasting impression of the entire concert. From the start, her tone was exceedingly visceral. You could hear both the subtle scraping of the bow against the strings and the earthy resonance of the violin's wooden frame.

Rather than being ostentatious, Josefowicz's virtuosity seemed intentionally direct and unpolished. This was decidedly expressionistic playing - from the blazing dexterity of melodic runs to the ominous pizzicato passage, to the ferocious double-stops. The resulting, overall sound was "ugly" in the best possible sense, as if communicating the angst, uncertainty, and disillusionment of our modern times.

Josefowicz clearly wasn't interested in making the music sound pretty or sentimental. Instead, there was an inherent violence to her approach, in which her timbre illuminated the tension and dissonances embedded in Prokofiev's harmonic framework. Note for note, Novaeck's cohesion with Josefowicz was astonishing, particularly during the poignant contrapuntal interplay in the final movement. Josefowicz's performance, full of mercurial rage, was nothing short of iconoclastic.

That's not to say that the recital was devoid of pleasant musical moments. In "Reflection," by the late Oliver Knussen, Josefowicz displayed a brilliant tone in the violin's upper register as she navigated the piece's numerous trills effortlessly. Still, a frenetic, almost combative energy lingered. Performing Otto Wittenbecher's arrangement of the fourth movement from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, Josefowicz played it somber, simple, and earnest. The vibe was more reserved, but the sound was no less intense.

In Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Josefowicz returned to the discordant atmosphere of the Prokofiev piece. The violin tone was once again searing, but Zimmermann's music enabled her to demonstrate her superb control over dynamics and phrasing as well. An enigmatic encore notwithstanding, the sonata was a fitting conclusion to the concert, with a tumultuous but captivating melodic sensibility.

The Kilbourn Concert Series continues with a performance by New York Polyphony on Tuesday, December 11, at 7:30 p.m.