Canadian-American violinist Leila Josefowicz continues to be a passionate advocate of contemporary music, enjoying collaborative relationships with the world’s foremost composers, including John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Thomas Adès, to name a few. Indeed, the former child prodigy who attended the Curtis Institute of Music as a teen — and performed with symphony orchestras in Europe, Asia, and North America during that time — made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1994 at age 17.
In fact, it was her championing of new music that helped Josefowicz win a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, and in 2018 she was given the $100,000 Avery Fisher Prize, joining a list of esteemed recipients that includes pianist Jeremy Denk and the Kronos Quartet. In John Adams’s 2008 memoir, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, he writes that Josefowicz’s mesmerizing performances of his 1993 Violin Concerto, “became a model for how a serious new instrumental work could indeed achieve repertoire status through the determined advocacy of an exceptionally talented artist.”
Adams went on to write Scheherazade.2 for the violinist, who premiered it with the New York Philharmonic in 2015, while earlier commissions include Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2009 Violin Concerto, which the intrepid virtuoso first performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall and which then went on to win the Grawemeyer award for composition in 2012. Josefowicz returns to Disney Hall Dec. 6–8 in a program conducted by Susanna Mälkki that features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and the 2002 violin concerto by Oliver Knussen, who passed away last year at age 66.
I spoke with Josefowicz by phone from her home in New York about a range of topics, including her upcoming engagement, her ongoing musical relationships with composers, and her steadfast dedication to new music.
Why is it important for you to play a living composer’s work instead of a dead composer’s — and are you still performing the so-called masterpieces of the repertory?
I like the form of your question. The living composers are my friends, to be put in a simple wording, and we know each other. We’ve collaborated, we work together on many, many, many of the pieces I perform. In most of the cases, they were commissioned for me and it was a joint process. They are responsible for creating the piece, but I’m responsible for putting the piece out there and being the messenger. Often times there are changes that I’m deeply involved in, when the score is still under construction, so to speak. I find it extremely rewarding because it’s a real live collaboration, which is so wonderful.
[As for] the masterpieces, I’m kind of weary of this word and I understand what you’re saying — that there’s been this kind of list where you could say Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., etc. And these are the great pieces I’ve learned in my training. But I soon found myself feeling like I wasn’t satisfied in my late teens. It took a few years for me to figure out what was wrong. I had the best training I could possibly have with deeply and profoundly thinking teachers.
I’m playing with great conductors, great orchestras, so I wondered “Why am I not happier with what I’m doing.” The answer came to me slowly over the next years and only became clear to me when I started feeling that I wanted more spontaneity. I didn’t want to keep performing pieces that everyone else was performing all the time. I didn’t want to be on a hamster wheel running around the world playing predictable works; I wanted more collaboration with people.
It’s very isolating, this profession anyway: You practice hours a day, alone, most of the time; you’re traveling alone; and once I started doing these collaborations, we would often travel together, eat together, perform together. It was a life transformation, especially when [composers] are also conductors. Esa-Pekka, Adams, Knussen — his death was devastating for me. This kind of work was completely life-changing for me. And these things answered my questions over why I’m not as happy as I think I should be happy.
When did your work with Adams, Knussen, and Salonen begin?
I met John Adams and Oliver Knussen at the same time. I was 20 or 21, and in that year we didn’t really know each other, but very soon after that we started playing together. Then they were conducting their concertos with me, so instead of hitting the road alone and feeling I was going to entertain myself in various ways, the upcoming performances generated excitement. I was going to work with some of my dearest friends. It was a full physical, emotional and artistic life transformation with these collaborations.
I was lucky to figure it out when I did, and also because in the example of Knussen, I got to know him extremely well in the last 20 years of his life. When he was doing a lot of traveling and conducting, I kind of joined him in that. Adams is still amazingly going so strong and we have this great collaboration. Esa-Pekka is another example. Part of it was also excellent timing and a combination of good things coming together. For me, it really was the realization that this path was a sheer necessity, in a way.
Because of my prodigy youth, I really did have to switch gears where I could make my own rules, make my own decisions. It got to the point where I was on a successful level, but it wasn’t going to sustain me for my whole career. I wouldn’t be on the same path over and over, and I had to understand to make this completely my own now. When I give talks, I say that when you’re on your career path, you really do have to understand what your strengths are and what your callings are and try to follow them. In this case, I didn’t change careers, but changed certain aspects of my career to make it work, which propelled me forward in knowing this is the right thing.
Can you talk a bit about the Knussen concerto?
The piece is extraordinary. It has so many different opportunities for color and mood. It gives the violinist great freedom for different expressive qualities. There’s a lot of drama, and anyone that knew Oliver Knussen will hear him in this music, of course. It’s extremely detailed and very intricate. The ensemble being together is crucial, and the second movement is heartfelt, a nostalgic gem. It’s a piece I played with him so many times and I know I will miss him while I play it.
You’ve also worked with Susanna Mälkki on numerous occasions. How would you describe your musical relationship with her?
She’s a very dear friend. I also want to thank her, because she programmed this piece with me in quite a few places to celebrate Ollie after he passed. Susanna is also someone I’ve known for just about the same length of time I’ve known Ollie and John. We’ve been each other’s support as friends for many years. She’s loved by my family, by my kids and personally, we’re very close on that level.
Susanna is an extraordinary musician and extremely dedicated to being one of the first pioneer women conductors. She’s very brave, she works very, very hard, and it’s an honor to be onstage with her. She’s premiered Luca Francesconi’s  concerto [Duende. The Dark Notes] with me and she’s done other contemporary works that I’ve done. She’s a team player in my world of newer music and she’s very special.
What will it take to see parity between women and men conductors?
We are seeing more women conductors and there’s some very, very talented people out there. It’s changing, but it takes time and it will take more time, but it’s a great thing.
What’s the process when you commission a new work?
Each person is their own universe and each personality has a different story each time, but generally speaking, I try to have it communicated early on that I would love to have the music as soon as possible [in order] to prepare. It’s very hard to compose and every composer has my sympathy. It’s also easy for composers to run late and I’m aware of that and try to communicate that I’d help if I can. I can’t help them compose, of course, but to keep communicating, to keep those lines open so that I’m getting the score earlier rather than later helps.
My work then begins and I converse more or less with them about things they’ve written. Some pieces need more tweaks, but it’s different every time. It’s fascinating to be a part of these processes with these composers — to see how their minds work. It keeps things very fresh and that’s what I love.
You spoke earlier of masterpieces and I do play some non-living composers, but I would feel not right to not play Berg or Stravinsky, because these pieces are masterworks in their own rights and need to be played as much as possible — and must be performed by me. But great masterpieces are being written now and I feel that I have great respect for my colleagues, because it’s so difficult to do what they do.
I understand that you also play most of the music written for you from memory?
Yes, but it does depend on some of the writing and the orchestral score and what’s involved. There are some that I haven’t memorized, but the majority of scores I have, and in the ones that I haven’t, I still memorize many, many sections. Of course, you can’t be reading from them on stage, because they’re too complicated, so you use cues and have certain notes. But I’d say that I do play 95 percent of the scores by memory.
I actually find memorizing Schubert, say, just as difficult, if not more. But it’s just brain wiring. People can’t understand how I do this, but I approach it the same way I approach Beethoven, and people aren’t surprised to see people memorize that. For me, the new works are the same. If you understand the details of the music, you work on it, you have the same muscle memory, you have the same comprehension of the score, so why not?
What kind of violin do you play on?
A 2013 Sameul Zygmuntowicz. He’s in his 50s and he’s a fabulous maker. This was also one of the things that made me feel like a player of today. Yes, I’ve played many Strads, but I honestly have to say this is no less wonderful. It may suit me even better than the older instruments. I own it, it doesn’t belong to an institution, and it’s something I’ll never have to give back. It’s my partner in crime and it’s a joy.
What advice do you have for young violinists?
I would say that practicing isn’t always fun. People are always tending to try to make it a positive experience for young people, which I would emphasize, but I’m also realistic. Learning an instrument masterfully is hard work. It takes a certain grit and dedication and sometimes it will feel more fun than others. It’s a process and it will go more smoothly at times than others. But the rewards come from hard work and if you love the music, those moments will be worth it. If the music speaks to you, follow that — that will be the guiding force behind everything.