Violinist Leila Josefowicz gives the east coast premiere of “Beautiful Passing,” a concerto that Princeton University music professor Steve Mackey wrote for her, on Sunday, October 3, at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Rossen Milanov, opening his first full season as music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, conducts.
The west coast premiere of the piece takes place in May, 2011, in Disney Hall, Los Angeles, when Josefowicz solos with Gustavo Dudamel on the podium. The world premiere of the work took place in Manchester, England, in October, 2008, with the BBC Philharmonic, under conductor Juraj Valcuha. A joint commission of the BBC Philharmonic and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the work had its U.S. premiere in St. Louis in November, 2008, under David Robertson.
The piece takes its name from the last words of Mackey’s mother to him. “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing,” she said.
In a telephone interview I ask Josefowicz if the piece is somber. “It’s not as simple as that,” she says. “It’s about letting go. Mackey thought at first that the piece would be a ‘barn burner’ — spectacular, flashy, showy, and robust. With his mother dying, it became heartfelt and deep, and took a very spiritual turn.”
Mackey sought Josefowicz’s input on the piece. “Half way through he called me in,” she says. “He played the piece for me before the score was completed. Nothing could be more exciting.”
Josefowicz minimizes her contribution. “The composer’s voice comes first,” she says. “I can be helpful with structure, the shape of the work, and the timing of musical events within the piece. If a composer is trying to get a certain sound and I have an idea, I tell them. I’m good at judging those things. Composers can get so immersed in what they’re doing that they lose perspective.”
“Steve talked about the story behind the piece all the time,” Josefowicz says. “He wrote much of it when he knew that his mother would pass. It’s about accepting the inevitable and letting go of what you’re attached to; and it’s about his mother letting go. But there are many joyful moments in it, celebrating and letting go in that way. The piece ends in evaporation. The writing becomes amorphous. As with other new works I play, there is a strong message, and there are daring techniques. What separates this piece from other works I play is the story behind it. It’s rare to have a requiem for the composer’s mother.”
In an E-mail, Mackey adds to the explanation. “While I was composing the piece, my mother passed away and that deflected the inspiration away from a show piece for the violin toward more of an homage to my mother.” Mackey writes both homage and showiness into the piece. “The inspiration I got from my mother was the serenity and inner strength she showed as she made the conscious decision that August 28, 2008, would be her last day. She let go of consciousness and slipped away amid the clangor of life that surrounded her. The orchestra wonderfully represents the glorious cacophony of life ,and Leila represents my mother’s serenity.”
I ask Mackey what made him decide that this piece should be a violin concerto. “The idea of a violin concerto came first,” he says. “I wanted to write a violin concerto, and I wanted it to be for Leila.”
You may wonder, as I did, why Leila. “I had heard her play on a recording,” Mackey says, “and had an intuition that her sound was the voice of my concerto and that her approach to music and mine would complement each other in collaboration.”
I inquire if Josefowicz finds anything in the piece that Mackey didn’t know was there. “Hmmm. . . interesting,” Mackey muses in his E-mail response. “I don’t know if she found anything I didn’t know was there, but she highlights things I didn’t expect. For example, many people regard the high, long, sustained, melody that she plays in the first part of the piece as something they remember days later. I thought that the passage was nice but thought it would take a back seat to other things. She plays it with such passion and commitment you can’t help but soar above the orchestra with her. Even though it is all whole notes and half notes and looks very simple on the page, she says it is the hardest thing in the piece from the point of view of stamina and focus.”
The concerto is “technically difficult,” in general, Josefowicz says. “It asks the violin to use unorthodox techniques. They’re borrowed from techniques Mackey uses when he performs on guitar. For instance, there are glissandi with harmonics [slides that feature overtones evoked by reduced finger pressure]. Some of the notes are solid; some are harmonics. You have to slide your finger slowly to make the harmonics audible, and you have to vary the pressure of your finger.
“I’ve been playing violin long enough that I think that I would not have much to learn,” Josefowicz says, “but there’s a lot. The chief way to learn new techniques is to play new pieces.”
At 33, Josefowicz has been performing in public for more than two decades. She was born in 1977 in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, to a physicist father and a geneticist mother, who now live in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Josefowicz has perfect pitch. Her father began shepherding her to Suzuki violin lessons when she was three, in accordance with the Suzuki system, which calls for a parent’s presence. He soon dropped out. “I was practicing more than he was,” she told U.S. 1 in a February 19, 1997, story, “and starting to sound better than him. He took the hint.”
Josefowicz grew up near Los Angeles, California, performing knuckle-breaking concertos by Niccolo Paganini and Henri Vieuxtemps before she was 10. When she was 13, the family moved to Philadelphia, where Josefowicz studied with Joseph Brodsky and Jaime Laredo at the Curtis Institute, graduating in 1995, when she was 18. She missed her own graduation ceremony because of a conflicting concert engagement.
Gradually, Josefowicz outgrew the child-prodigy label, continued performing with the world’s major orchestras, and emerged as a champion of new music. She had a son, Lucas, with conductor Paavo Jaarvi, in 2000. Her mother comes from Halifax to help when Josefowicz needs her. “Motherhood is amazing,” Josefowicz says. “It’s humbling. It keeps me grounded. Lucas is a darling guy. He plays piano and is very into listening. It will be an interesting journey. His musical interests will have to come from him. I’m not into pushing.”
Seeking a balance between concertizing and living, Josefowicz has reduced the number of her appearances to a level that she calls “sane.” Between July, 2010, and June, 2011, she is scheduled for 55 concerts. “That not insane,” she says. “I’m doing all the things I want to do with composers and conductors. Colin Matthews, Esa Pekka Salonen, John Adams, and Steve Mackey all wrote for me.”
The Adams piece, “Dharma at Big Sur,” calls for a six-string electric violin, with two strings below the normal range of the violin; the lowest pitch the electric instrument reaches is below the bass clef, more than an octave below the bottom of standard violins. “It’s a thrill playing in the cello range,” Josefowicz says. “I can’t tell you the tickles that piece gives me; it’s a real trip.”
For the piece, Josefowicz uses an electric violin made by David Bruce Johnson in England. “The way he makes instruments suits me,” she says. “I tried to get him to make it as acoustically minded as possible. The way the pickups are set up in the bridge gives it a lot of sensitivity. It has a cushiony feel. I got very lucky.”
The Adams work established itself on the cutting edge of technology, not only because of its instrumentation, but because of its publisher. The recording is issued by iTunes, rather than a standard record company. Josefowicz says: “iTunes may suit the new music that I’m part of. People can buy it online.”
Normally, Josefowicz uses a 1724 Guarneri del Gesu for all of her playing. “Thinking about instruments is fascinating, but it could drive you crazy,” she says. “The market has gotten out of control. Most players have to depend on donors for their instruments.
“I’m a player, not a collector,” Josefowicz says. “The sound comes from us as players. A while back, I didn’t have a good instrument, and I learned that I would survive. The instrument makes subtle differences that can add up. They have a certain tambour. But the sound is dependent on the player. Some players search for changing colors; others don’t. It’s not entirely in our control what instrument we have. We do the best we can; I’m practical. The magic comes from the player. “
Power, Passion, and Grace, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, October 3, 4 p.m. Guest artist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, performs in the New Jersey premiere of Steven Mackey’s “Beautiful Passing,” a work that was tailored for her by the composer. Mackey is a professor of music at Princeton, where he teaches composition, theory, 20th century music, and improvisation. The program also includes Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Rossen Milanov conducts. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $16 to $64. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.
PSO Soundtracks, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Wednesday, September 29, 7:30 to 9 p.m. Rossen Milanov gives a preview of the new season. Free. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra: Behind the Music, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Saturday, October 2, 4:30 to 6 p.m. Introduction of “Beautiful Passing” written by composer Steven Mackey. Panel discussion with Mackey, violinist Leila Josefowicz, and PSO music director Rossen Milanov. Register. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.