Josefowicz Recital Ends with a John Adams Classic

11/11/2017

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Zimmermann, Adams: Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 7.11.2017. (HS)

SibeliusValse Triste, Op.44 (arranged by Friedrich Hermann)
Prokofiev — Sonata in F minor
Bernd Alois Zimmermann — Sonata
John AdamsRoad Movies

Leila Josefowicz is a confounding violinist. She has the gut instincts to bring excitement to contemporary music that needs muscle behind it, and she can sneak up to diaphanous high notes with precision and deftness, even if more prosaic passages can sag out of tune from time to time.

Presented by San Francisco Performances in Herbst Hall, Josefowicz and her longtime recital partner John Novaceck seemed much more at home in the second half of their recital.

The highlight was the captivating Road Movies by John Adams. The Bay Area-based composer also wrote the colorful ‘dramatic symphony’ Scheherezade.2 for Josefowicz, who gave it a thrilling performance earlier this year with the San Francisco Symphony. The propulsive rhythms of Road Movies, which debuted two decades prior, bounces along with some of the same lively rhythmic gestures as John’s Book of Alleged Dances, his 1994 work for the Kronos Quartet.

Josefowicz and Novacek, who recorded Road Movies on a 2004 CD, relished every twist and turn on the light-hearted, amiable journey. The tone was jaunty, with all the rhythmic life one could desire.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Sonata dates from 1950, when the composer reveled in collaging a wide variety of contrasting musical styles side-by-side. Two invigorating outer movements spiked with motoric rhythms and clashing dissonances surround a central movement of trills and arpeggios, and the results got an enthusiastic response.

The first half of the concert exposed some of the violinist’s weaknesses. Her intonation foundered in an arrangement for violin and piano of Sibelius’ Valse Triste. The transcription by Friedrich Hermann – a 19th-century violinist and the editor of many violin works published by the Peters Edition – calls for simplicity and grace. Josefowicz’s rough-hewn style didn’t quite fit, until the louder climax.

The Prokofiev Sonata in F minor contains enough rough-and-tumble writing for Josefowicz to chew on. If the lyrical sections in the slow movement lacked the gentility to contrast ideally, the shifting meters in the faster movements felt totally natural in these musicians’ hands. The violinist’s tone suited the composer’s indication that quiet sections of the first movement should sound ‘cold.’ It was an impressively committed performance.

As a well-intended encore meant to calm things down after the Zimmermann and Adams, Claus Ogerman’s delicately sentimental arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ seemed tentative rather than touching.

Harvey Steiman

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