Proms FrockWatch: Leila Josefowicz

By Greg Last edited 162 months ago
Proms FrockWatch: Leila Josefowicz

Having predicted that violinist Leila Josefowicz would wear something stunning for her two Proms performances, we were momentarily taken aback when we first caught sight of her walking onstage to play the Bruch concerto in the Royal Albert Hall last Saturday. A simple turquoise skirt, paired with a sky-blue... camisole? That couldn't be right, could it? Ah but look again... that's no camisole! It's a fantasia of pleated chiffon, which extends in the back to form a sort of train, which is then tied into a large knot. The outfit thus managed to suggest, in its silhouette, a Victorian bustle; while the outfit's obvious comfort — and that insouciant knot — simultaneously indicated the opposite: a California Hippie chick. (Although the spangley belt she wore seemed unlike Issey Miyake, the entire outfit was certainly Miyake-esque.) Upon closer inspection, the skirt could be seen to be pleated as well, but with much finer pleats than the bodice. So, even though the skirt was floor-length, its clingy drape served, whenever she adopted her athletic, bent-kneed stance, to reveal that her thighs and claves were no less muscular than her visibly powerful arms. (Seriously. Girlfriend got guns.) We promised to tell you how much decolleté was on display. Answer: well, when she bent over to take her bows, pretty much the whole chimichanga.

Also, she played the fuck out the Bruch concerto.

What would she look like when she appeared in her afternoon recital in Cadogan Hall two days later? (By the way, are we the only ones who always want to call it "Turducken Hall"?) Well, imagine our surprise when she appeared on stage wearing the exact same outfit! Our first impulse was to shout "Boo!", but then we began to respect the decision. It's sort of punk rock, you see: "With only one frock, I can be overdressed for 1pm, and undressed for 8pm! Fuck you!" her clothes seemed to be saying. (It must be said that the look was not entirely identical: the — there's no other way to say it — protruding nipples issue that vexed her Saturday night was sorted by Monday afternoon.)

And then, she played the fuck out of works by Messiaen, Ravel, and Adams.

After the jump: a proper review, we promise.

Josefowicz is an intensely physical performer. She grunts, she gasps, she grimaces. She is the Monika Seles of the violin. During rests in the concerto, she would crouch and shift her weight back and forth, like a caged animal, or a boxer. I half-expected her to spit into a bucket. While she was playing, she often appeared to be in physical pain. Or, less frequently, ecstasy.

Perhaps some of this was mere posturing. But it was of a piece with her approach to the Bruch concerto. She favours a sound that could be called "grainy" — all that visible muscular effort translates into a rough, aggressive tone. She sometimes violently pushed ahead rhythmically, pulling against the orchestra to thrilling effect. Predictably, this approach worked to greatest effect in the loud, fast passages. When she applied the same force, the same muscularity to the slow, lyrical moments, the effect was disconcerting, not to say defamiliarizing. One of our companions found the slow movement in particular pretentious, "milked," and on the edge of tasteless. We see where this impression came from, but for us there was an integrity to her interpretation that was always intelligent, and surprisingly subtle, if not always restrained.

And if there were doubts about her ability to reign herself in, they were dispelled in Turducken Hall. A word first about the venue, a recently converted nineteenth-century Christian Science church off Sloan Square: it is absolutely beautiful, spotlessly clean, and comfortable. It has a fine acoustic, and it all in all a wonderful place to hear music. (It will be the home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra starting next season.) The venue is a new one for the Proms, and so we weren't sure when to arrive to purchase the limited day seats in the gallery. There was no need to worry — the gallery was barely half-full; we could have shown up at 1pm and still been given a fine seat. Dear Londonist readers: go to these concerts! Every Monday at 1! Only £4! Over by 2pm! Take a long lunch! They are too good to be wasted only on under-employed students and old-age pensioners!

But back to Leila: her recital, with collaborator John Novacek on the piano, consisted of an early work by Olivier Messiaen, the gorgeous Sonate by Ravel, and the wonderful Road Movies by John Adams, which she recorded for Nonesuch last year. The Messiaen dismissed at once our reservations about her lyrical playing, although the piece had passages that were sort of, well, boring (and not boring in that mesmerizing, mystical Messiaen way, either... just plain boring). Her performance of the Ravel was colorful and varied, and she put her graininess, here shorn of its aggression, to excellent use in the middle movement, a quirky French version of a tin-pan alley blues.

We love John Adams, and we're not afraid to admit it. Yes, sometimes he's absurdly overpraised and overrated, but no smoke without fire, right? Road Movies opens with a burst of energy that ever-so-faintly recalls old-timey country fiddling, keeps the momentum sustained though the slow movement marked "meditative," and ends with a breathless race the finish line. The audience was overwhelmed. We got a lovely little encore: an arrangement of Charlie Chaplin's song from Modern Times, "Smile."

In the interest of completeness, yes, we were still listening for the other two pieces on the program with the concerto Saturday night: Gerald Schwartz led the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a solid if unsurprising reading of the Mendelssohn "Hebrides" overture. The gigantic Vaughn-Williams "Sea Symphony" had moments of pure transcendence, mostly due to the cracker-jack singing on the part of the chorus (or choruses, to be precise — the concert featured the combined forced of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Chester Festival Chorus). Baritone Dwayne Croft, a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, sang beautifully but perhaps "acted" a bit too much. Soprano Janice Watson could perhaps have acted a bit more, though she, too, was in good voice. Unfortunately, a companion of ours pointed out that she bore a slight resemblance to Joanna Lumley, which almost ruined the rest of the concert for us.

Coming up this week in the Proms: A world premiere by Detlev Glanert on Tuesday, new Dutilleux on Wednesday, an all-Russian program on Friday... and the milky-white, bedroom eyes, ruby-lipped vision that is Joshua Bell (playing what will probably be a somewhat lame Corigliano concerto) on Thursday...

Last Updated 26 July 2005