Leila Josefowicz: music is an instinctual human experience

A favourite of living composers, violinist Leila Josefowicz has premiered many modern concertos for her instrument, including those by Colin Matthews, Steven Mackey and Esa-Pekka Salonen, all written specially for her. This season, she will perform the UK premiere of Helen Grime’s Violin Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Dalia Stasevska. Other recent premieres include John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 (Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra) in 2015 with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, and Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes in 2014 with Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki. Josefowicz enjoyed a close working relationship with the late Oliver Knussen, performing various concerti, including his violin concerto, together over 30 times. She has previously received nominations for Grammy Awards for her recordings of Scheherazade.2 with the St Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. We sat and talked with Leila about many things: what inspires and drives her forward, what it was like to work with composers she has collaborated with, what is her view of influence of modern technologies on music perception and what is special about attending a live concert. Her next appearance (Feburary 27-29, 2020) will be with San Francisco Symphony, performing Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto conducted by the composer.


Leila, can I ask what is so special about being a modern classical musician? In what respect is your life different from those of anybody else? Why are you happy to be you?

(Laughs) That’s a good question! I like to be creative, I like to have spontaneity, I like to generate excitement, to be alive, and I think art is essential to be excited, to be alive, to create something. Anywhere, whether it is planting a garden or drawing a picture, there is a certain kind of birth that happens in us when we do something from the inside and it comes out into the world. This is at the root of all creativity. In my case – with music – I still feel exactly like this everytime I play a piece. It’s very personal, it comes from inside, it is about expression and hopefully takes you away from all your existential thoughts, worries and concerns. So art is actually very escapist in a lot of ways, while at the same time it is a very grounding experience.


This seems to be an ideal version of creativity one could aspire to. But in reality what are the challenges and difficulties of reaching it? Is it always easy for a musician like you?

There are many difficulties, and the first one is that you have to travel all the time. If I could do some or even a little of what I do more from my home, it would be a very different experience. But the truth is that we always have to be transient. And this could be exciting and adventurous, but the irony is it can also feel very trapping, because you feel sort of enslaved to it. Sometimes you actually don’t want to leave home, and all of a sudden there is no choice – you have to. So sometimes I feel challenged by travels and at other times I feel excited to go. Also my everyday reality is constantly changing unlike that of a someone who has a constant job. To counteract it I have always to have a discipline. To perfect any sort of art form it takes great devotion – almost like in the case of an Olympic athlete. But accepting this evolving lifestyle is probably the biggest challenge. I have three children, and my mother is very helpful with them, and I have a whole system that enables me to do what I do, but this is a very specific kind of living. On the other hand, I always meet amazing, creative, artistic people, and is wonderful and inspiring.


You have become known as the medium for music of modern classical composers. How did you choose this path? Was there ever a bifurcation point when you could have become a more ‘normal’ violinist and performer of well-known repertoire?

That’s how I began – I started more like a prodigy, and in my teens I was playing standard repertoire. But already in the end of my teens I was antsy and restless. I wanted to do things that were less conservative and less expected. In this art form – in classical music – there is a lot of expectation for what people want to hear, what they are used to hearing. There is also comparative listening when there is a standard work everyone loves and you hear five different people do the same thing and compare their takes on it. It could be interesting, but I find it claustrophobic. I want to break away from people going around in the same path. Mostly just because I also wanted to break free from my earlier roots in playing and build my own identity. This suited me very well. What also helped was that when I really started full on with newer music, people had already known me for sometime. In other words, I couldn’t have started my career today by saying ‘I only want to play new music! I am really good, trust me’. In today’s day and age all these administrations of orchestras need to know and trust you as a musician. The same is with the audience – a new way of listening isn’t always easy for them.

You are also quite unique because it is you who often commissions the works or at least inspires and ‘pushes’ composers to do it. How do you do it? How do you feel being at the roots of a new creation?

I love that. The composers that I have been lucky enough to work with – they know me and it is fun. It is not like we know of each other somewhere out there in the world – no, they actually know me. They know what I am like, they know my character, they know my personality, they’ve seen me perform – some of them have done so many, many times. They know who I am – I am sort of a quirky person – and they have a character portrait of me. As they know me, they know who they are writing for, and that can’t help but influence how they write. If I was a painter and was doing your portrait, I would be doing as I always do it, but you are influencing the way how I do it – it is sort of like that. That’s why it is important some kind of communication and relationship with the composer.


Can you describe the process of such communication? Do you meet and talk about your wishes and criteria for the future concert? Do you propose themes? Do you meet at later stages?

It is very different. Every composer is like a different planet. I always have to be cautious and attentive with them. If I make a suggestion, I always have to say: ‘This is what I am thinking, am I correct in thinking this is what you want to have here? If this is so, I might have a suggestion which would make it in some way stronger for the violin. Being an instrumentalist, I can tell you that this might actually work better. If you don’t like it, forget I said anything’. It is sort of like that. I am not confused in any way about what our respective roles in the process are. They are very different. I am not the composer, and they always know more about what they want than me. I am the messenger. You know, with every relationship it is always about personalities.


Do you have to compartmentalize them into worlds – say, ‘Colin Matthews’ world, ‘John Adams world’, et cetera?

It is not that I have to make a decision to do that, it is automatic, it is like different languages – Russian, English, Spanish. It is like being a linguist, a polyglot, someone who speaks different languages, and distinguishes subtle shifts in phrases, innuendos, figures of speech.

So in many cases you become the first and sometimes the only performer of a particular new piece. Do you feel like owning it, serving as the only channel for this particular concerto?

For some of them, yes, but others have also been played by others. The whole idea of doing what I do is when I am done playing – later on in future – that people will have a newer, broader range of repertoire for the next generations. This is something I want to give to future – try to create some great works that audiences will know and love.


You perform a Violin Concerto by Oliver Knussen. Why was he so special for many colleagues that knew him and worked with him, and what inspires you in his Concerto?

Olly was truly a treasure… He had an encyclopedic knowledge of so many works of classical music, especially of the 20th century. He had the sharpest ear, and was extremely generous with young composers and instrumentalists alike, a truly inspirational person to be around. We knew each other extremely well, I learned a huge amount of repertoire and he had a huge impact on my life in general as well as my creativity… It is impossible to imagine my playing without his impact nor my life without his impact. As for his concerto, it is exquisite… As in all of his works, the use of instrumentation, the drama and the wit, the fragility as well as strength is unique. He knew even the smallest touch of a specific instrument made all of the difference in terms of how the score came across to the ear . I would say that among the more modern composers he was a complete expert at knowing how the smallest details can impact a score.

What is special about Esa-Pekka Salonen, another of your frequent collaborators?

Like Olly, Esa-Pekka is an extraordinary conductor… This is a huge advantage of course because the composer can conduct his own works. It is also easier for the conductor to program his own works. But EP is so great at both, which is very rare and it is such a pleasure to be performing with him regularly. His music definitely has a Scandinavian sound, specifically Finnish which is where he’s from… edgy and enigmatic.


This week you will perform his Violin Concerto with San Francisco Symphony – the work that you helped to shape and premiered more than a decade ago and which was dedicated to you. Could you share your vision of it?

I am very proud to have collaborated with Esa-Pekka when he wrote this work. I was certainly very helpful in the process and definitely assisted with the shape of the piece as well as some finer details.. such as linking the first two movements… but I tried to asked him to change his writing as little as possible… I feel the composer’s ideas are coming from a very important soulful place that should not be changed unless it is totally unplayable. In general this concerto is about pushing all emotions to its limits… from the urban dance movement with drum kit to the very deep and mysterious tone poem which is the last movement.

What is the worst and best feedback you can get from the composer?

If you are working with the composer, you are working together towards something, and the worst thing would be… them having trouble creating this piece, having some writer’s block when the piece doesn’t happen. The most amazing thing is when everything falls into place, with the premiere being like a birth of a piece. When it is very successful, it is very exciting. Creating is a big journey, it is not always very easy, but we always have a goal ahead that motivates us.


What are your plans for commissioning new things from composers?

I always have plans for new things – I try to keep them always moving. In some years it just comes more easily than in others. The composers I like to work with are really few – to be a great composer is really hard. During the last decade there were quite a lot of new works that I learned. I don’t anticipate the new decade to be quite as intensive, as I have done so much already. Everything is also changing – some composers whom I like are already commissioned to do an opera, as they are not only writing for violin, you know (laughs).


In what way, in your opinion, is musical material different from what we read in books or see in paintings? What exactly do we get from a modern concert that is useful for our brains and minds?

It is a performance art, so it is live art which is different from art in the museum. You can’t put it up on the wall, this art is happening in the moment. So you are the art. The sound you make is art. It is less valuable monetary-wise because you can’t hold it, you can’t invest in it, you have to experience it in a moment. But then when this moment is over, it is all over – so it is live art. All the great paintings – Van Gogh and all other modern artists – they create and then it stays. With us – we create in the moment. The recording is a good example of what we do, but it isn’t really the same. So this art is immediate and that’s very powerful in its own way. It cannot be recreated – ever, even with the same performer. Me playing the piece tonight will be different from me playing the piece tomorrow night, as we are also always changing.

What are your happiest moments, epiphanies in your life as a performer?

You always aspire to be euphoric, but you don’t always reach those heights. It is human nature – you hope for these moments where you can get to this place when you are so deep into the focus that you are not even aware of the world around and your existence, you are not even aware of the act of focusing, you are just in it. It is not the question of enjoying or not enjoying, you are it, you become it. Sometimes you can feel like this and it’s a wonderful feeling, even though you are not judging it at the moment. It is just an amazing kind of experience to look back at and feel. On some nights you can’t get there, so you have to remain where you are (laughs).


Do you reach those heights with the conductor during the concert? Or is it your own flight?

Live performance is a shared experience. Half of the time I don’t know what is going in myself, much less in someone else, so I don’t know about them. However, if it goes well, there is definitely some shared experience, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get there.


Do you believe that new technical developments related to music might be useful in future? Are you pro or contra new technology?

I am not a very tech person, I am not really great with understanding how all these things work. I think the danger in society is the loss of patience. Everything has to happen with the click of your fingers, fast, right now. And life is not like that. The big questions in life take time to answer. If you can get something this second, doesn’t mean that you should have it this second. It is wrong to expect everything to be immediate, and I think it is a little it how it is right now. So many things are just there, while the search for things is very important, and it needs to be done without expecting these things to be found immediately. However, in multimedia projects where art, dance and music is combined you don’t have to take in everything, you perceive what you think is interesting and essential for your experience, and if it is too much for you, close your eyes or (laughs) plug your ears.


This new rhythm of life – does it affect the experience of listening to music?

With new music people can go: ‘Oh, I’ve heard it, I don’t get it’. They feel that they need to understand everything right now. The message has to come through now or it doesn’t exist for them. It takes me a year to learn a score fully, and hopefully my long journey of studying helps people to understand, but it is a process. You can’t just learn a language in a day, it takes time. And if you are open to this new language and new experience, it still takes time and desire to get into the core of it.

It is a paradox, as we perceive music or listen to it on a recording, we usually feel it as something less personal than it is for you. When you describe it, it seems to be highly personal – with real people, in real time.

We have to remember that this process is very organic. All the media, all the techicalities of it are secondary to human interaction which is very fragile. To be a great artist, you have to be vulnerable, and to be fully ready to experience something, you also have to be vulnerable. We must keep in touch with ourselves to be able to feel this human side of art.


Do you get feedback on whether your musical message has been received by audiences?

I don’t always get feedback. I just have to hope it has been transmitted. The composers I work with – I have a lot of confidence in them, they are great creators – and if I give performances on a very high level, it sets the standard for that work.


What would you recommend to us in order to become better listeners?

Don’t try to understand, just experience. Let yourself be in the process – it is all good, all real, all valid, all clever enough. It is a basic instinctual human experience. Learning a score is great, but I am talking about something more basic than that – when you listen, just be open, don’t judge what you are hearing and just remain open … Thank you, great questions!