Friday, November 10, 2006

Everyone's a Critic: Leila Josefowicz

Photo from

This week the symphony has violinist Leila Josefowicz playing Hindemith's ("HIN-duh-mitt's" ((are parenthetical phonetics condescending?)) ) concerto. I really didn't know much about her, except that she was a child prodigy, moved beyond that to have lived 26 years now and she has a lovely name. Leeeee-la leela, see?

Today I sat in the balcony for the Hindemith and watched her rehearse with the orchestra, curious about both the piece and her playing. One great benefit to being a sub is almost always being cut from concertos so you can lay back and listen for free (for pay, even).

I should give you a little background on my prejudices. Violists have a close relationship with Hindemith because he wrote one of our few major concertos. Our ears perk up a bit in music history class when his story gets told, there are all sorts of minutia we gladly memorize, and we imagine ourselves in possession of a very special brand of interpretive juju.

Ms. Josefowicz impressed me anyway. She played a personal, convincingly nuanced reading of the score which left me with an unexpectedly new view on Hindemith.

As I listened I realized what it was that was so different in her playing; her treatment of rhythm. Hindemith uses lots of dotted rhythms (these sound like bahhhhh ba bahhhhh ba) which folks tend to play with military precision and "dryness" because these are associated with the German classical tradition. When a string player talks about a dry sound, we generally mean there is some space between notes to accentuate rhythm where possible and the bow is pulled steadily without any swell in the sound- it's as strong at the beginning as in the middle. In a long phrase, there will be strong-weak combinations of notes built around the rhythmic structure.

So I was a little surprised when I realized how fluidly Ms. J played, how lovely and controlled and unobtrusive every bow change was, and how long and sinuous she stretched her phrases. It sounded like Hindemith in Paris, Hindemith on brie with poodles and fall in central park... but not in a non-German heretical one-trick prodigy kind of way. It still played out like legit Hindemith.

This woman has some serious bow-arm. She has changed direction and moved three notes down the road before you even realize. There is never any "Kkk" as the hair turns to rub the string the other way, nor does she ever appear to be "saving" bow. Lovely. I couldn't stop staring. Looking at her bio, I discover she plays a Guarneri del Gesu. I love the caramel latte with a little Grand Marnier and a Cuban cigar sound of Guarneris. I think Strads tend to be more Whiskey Sour with a plate of smoked caviar & jicama triangles while a Ferrari's parked outside. Nice, but not me.

I'm hungry.

She does do a few odd things. She bends herself in such a way that you think her upper body may be permanently creased as her upper back pokes toward the first violins and her clavicles strive to touch her hipbones.

Also, every famous string anybody I've come across MUST sign a union contract to make extra movements when the phrase is done and the bow leaves the string. It's the classical musician's version of jazz hands and techniques abound. There's the dramatic pointing of the bow to the balcony group, the whip it out and jut your chin forward sect, the flip your hair while bobbing emphatically contingent. It annoys all the non-violinists, and reminds me of a Meg Ryanesque orgasm (sound and fury signifying nothin'). Ms. Josefowicz should patent (Trademark? Copyright? Whatever, ask J.) hers- she does the gumby bend described above while making a distinctly jazzery face with a pinch of the hair flip and a rounded tablespoon of the faux-jowly nod. She plants her feet as though in a strong wind- I wonder if she'll heel up for the concerts...

In any case, I would go to her shows if she came to my town. That's saying a lot because I'm a lazy old cheap bird and only a handfull of players will inspire me to bother.

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