Violinist Leila Josefowicz, whose meaty Schubert Club recital Tuesday in St. Paul was among the highlights of the current season, speaks the thoughts that many classical musicians seem afraid even to think. "It really is not a given that people have to go out and try new things," she said of her performing colleagues in a 2006 interview. "People just sit back and play the same music over and over."
Josefowicz, 33, should know. She used to be one of those people. A decade ago, as I remember all too vividly, she strode onto the stage of the Ordway and murdered the tender, unresisting concerto of Max Bruch in cold blood. It's taken me a while to forgive her.
But Josefowicz has since reinvented herself as a provider of new and newish music to mainstream audiences. Her fire-breathing, Curtis Institute-honed virtuosity, her fierce focus and athleticism are still there, but they've been productively re-channeled, making her one of the indispensable performers of our day -- a creative force, wielding her star power for the common good. (If you missed her, don't despair: She returns in late April for concerts with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.)
Disappointingly, her program Tuesday, in which she was superbly partnered by pianist Tamara Stefanovich, lacked a piece by one of the younger composers she's championed so vigorously. But it countered with rarely heard music by three 20th-century greats: Shostakovich, Messiaen (the early Theme and Variations) and the Hungarian master György Kurtag, who, at 85, is belatedly enjoying something akin to fame.
There is nothing ingratiating about Shostakovich's lone Sonata for Violin and Piano (1968), written, like his two violin concertos, for the incomparable David Oistrakh. The opening Andante is a ghostly dance, lit by flickers of a spent lyricism; the terrifying Allegretto has been said, plausibly, to evoke the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Josefowicz's and Stefanovich's performance left me limp.
The terse, aphoristic Kurtag --"one note," he has said, "is almost enough" -- can be hard to program. The performers' solution, a mash-up of his Three Pieces for Violin and Piano with three of his playful "Games" for solo piano, struck me as effective. Stefanovich, in white gloves, outdid Kurtag's own recording of "Perpetuum mobile." And "Pantomime," a fully composed silence, made the perfect encore.
Music by Brahms (the turbulent C-minor Scherzo) and Schubert (the "Rondo brillant," perhaps a bit overplayed on this occasion) bookended the concert.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.