Leila Josefowicz talks about playing new music to Ariane Todes
“I’ve always been attracted to modern music. Perhaps it is the daring of playing something that audiences don’t know. It’s in my rebellious nature not to do the things that everyone predicts. There is also a spontaneity in performing something for which people can’t rely on comparative listening – if they hear something totally new, your performance can’t be compared to another version. I find that refreshing. Growing up, I played all the standard repertoire over and over, and was always being compared to other players, which is very competitive. I wanted to get away from that feeling to something more creative.
I enjoy the process of conversing with a composer as I work on their piece. They’re composing it and I’m trying to translate it into ways that are more feasible for the audience, or more performable. It’s so satisfying. I’m making the piece into what it is for the composer, but I’m also giving it to future generations of players. Every composer has a different language and I love putting care and diligence into understanding their grammar and the subtle markings of what they’ve written.
For young players thinking of exploring new music, listening is key. If you want to be more informed, poke around YouTube and the internet. Sometimes you need an introduction. I remember the first times people played John Adams and Thomas Adès for me – I was blown away. Look for new composers and do some explorative listening. Go to concerts. As players we need to find the things that we’re most passionate about. Listening around can help you find out what that is. If you’re open, certain pieces start speaking to you. Already when I was at school, I was playing Berg and Bartók (which were considered new when I was at Curtis!).
We have to listen to our instincts. What attracts us? What do we enjoy? If we don’t enjoy it, there’s no point about being in music, so these are important questions to ask. Audiences are not going to be convinced if performances are not persuasive, so we have to be diligent and enthusiastic – it makes a difference.
Things have progressed since I was a student. There are many more performances of new music and composer-in-residence schemes, and new works are not so isolated on programmes – they may be thrown in among more standard repertoire. We’re moving in the right direction.
What makes a piece great? Everyone will say something different. For me, it can have certain flaws, but in general if the sound arrests you and stays with you, or if you’re left with strong feelings or impressions about it, that is a huge achievement by the composer – if you can say, ‘When I heard things happening in this section, or those chords, feelings came over me.’ These might be more abstract feelings than you would get from a more classical composer, but not always. If you’re struck with huge thoughts or emotions, or you remember certain moments, that means the piece is great. This is what composers strive for.
I’m lucky that my career is built on 20th and 21st century music. It’s where my passion lies so I don’t play a lot of standard works at this point. But my practice routine is very much like it was when I was younger. Just because the music is newer, what suits me as a player doesn’t mean that my regime has to be different. I’m still aiming for the same things: to understand the musical content and to conquer the technical difficulties so the musical content can speak, whatever the genre of music. In my head this does not change. Maybe it takes more time to understand so that part of the process takes more time, but that’s what I find interesting, and why I gravitated to it in the first place.”
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