Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80
Zimmermann: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Adams: Road Movies
Another Saturday night, another concert that I simply had to attend instead of staying away from the Saturday night madness in the comfort of my own home. The one and only Leila Josefowicz is way too rare of a musician to be fussy about where, when and how one can enjoy her prodigious talent and adventurous spirit. Moreover, let’s face it, while going all the way to the Upper East Side’s 92Y to attend her recital with long-time music partner John Novacek was no walk in the park (literally, since I had to take the cross-town bus), it was still significantly more convenient than going all the way to Berlin, Germany, where I saw her last with John Adams and the Berliner Philharmoniker over a year ago.
Knowing her as a staunch advocate of contemporary music, I was more than a little surprised to see that her program included a trio of well-established composers, namely Jean Sibelius, Sergei Prokofiev and John Adams. But then I realized the second part of the concert would start with lesser-known German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose background promised an intriguing mix of avant-garde, serial and post-modern, and that she was therefore still true to her laudable and exciting mission.
Whether it is played as an outstanding little number on the official program or as an ever-popular encore, Sibelius’ "Valse triste" is usually heard in its orchestral version. Not so on Saturday night, where the leaner combination of piano and violin still beautifully captured the eerie atmosphere and diaphanous textures of the original waltz.
Although Prokofiev’s openly grim Violin Sonata No. 1 is no stranger to concert halls, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time and had almost forgotten what a powerful ̶ political or not ̶ statement it makes. And I could hardly have imagined a better pairing than Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek to refresh my memory as they dug deeply into the composition’s icy winds, foreboding darkness, strident dissonances and general sense of hopelessness.
Fortunately, the duo did not let the depressing mood completely take over as Josefowicz came up with some achingly beautiful lyrical lines, which made her uncompromising handling of the more abrupt moments all the more startling. The subtly haunted first movement eventually gave way to a second movement so relentlessly vigorous that her bow ended up losing an impressive quantity of hair and the keyboard had to be seriously tuned up after it was all over. The third movement rocked gently while the frenetic folk dance of the fourth one brought us back to the lugubrious winds.
Never one to shy away from overlooked composers or technical challenges, on Saturday night Josefowicz brought us Bernd Alois Zimmermann via his impossible-to-label Sonata for Violin and Piano. Featuring harsh grittiness mixed with bits of almost danceable tunes and a deceptively quiet middle movement, the 15-minute uncompromisingly complex and boldly virtuosic piece effectively kept musicians and audience on their toes.
A concert by Leila Josefowicz does not feel quite complete without the presence of John Adams, her frequent collaborator and possibly biggest fan, and on Saturday his colorful Road Movies concluded the program on a genuinely fun note. The piano’s easy-going groove and the violin’s restless flying around made for an imaginary car trip that was both relaxing and hard-driven first, before they took a peaceful break to unwind, maybe meditate. Before we knew it though, the trip resumed with the instruments totally refueled and generating pretty cool jazzy overtones too. The discussion heated up and the pace quickened all the way to the final destination.
Now that everybody’s spirit had been lifted up, the performers clearly did not want to break the light-hearted mood, so their priceless parting gift was a straightforwardly luminous performance of “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin. And we all did.