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A Conversation with Violinist Leila Josefowicz

Canadian virtuoso and former child star Leila Josefowicz talks about music, marriage, and motherhood

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Photo by Susie Maeder.

The kid has grown up. Forget the sparky teenager, all teeth and shoulder-length hair, seen in her early publicity photos. And ignore the more recent image, reproduced on her For the End of Time CD, in which a nervous-looking waif, hair pulled back into a spiky ponytail, stares uncertainly at the camera. The 22-year-old woman who walks into the rehearsal hall in Birmingham, England, is most definitely an adult: casually dressed, hair tied back haphazardly, and displaying the unmistakable profile of a mother to be. The everyday Leila Josefowicz is, if not unrecognizable from her airbrushed marketing image, a far cry from it.

Fortunately she’s as media-friendly as ever and agreed readily to this interview. As I’m about to discover, she talks candidly, expressing opinions that are thoughtful and mature. Yet now that the rehearsal of Bruch’s G-Minor Concerto is over, the authority she demonstrated on stage has evaporated, leaving her slightly ill at ease and, from time to time, even a little tongue-tied. We begin by discussing how "normal" a life she’s had. This is the woman, don’t forget, whose appearance at the age of ten on a Bob Hope TV special, playing Wieniawski’s Scherzo-tarantelle, was introduced by Lucille Ball.

"I do realize now how different a life I’ve led—even to this day—from that of most people my age," she says. "For a while I wasn’t sure how to come to grips with it, or whether I truly liked it. And the way I’ve dealt with it, for the most part, is to not think about it much. Until a few months ago I was playing nonstop—which was a kind of learning experience for me, because after a while I thought, ‘Why do this? Why confine yourself so much that you can’t enjoy what you’re doing?’ I’ve now reached the point where I’m discovering the groove that I want to go in—in my career as well as in other aspects of my life."

It all began in October 1977, when Josefowicz was born in Mississaugga, Ontario, in Canada. Her father, a scientist, has always loved the violin, and when Leila was three years old he started her on the Suzuki method. At around the same time, the family moved to California, one hour’s drive north of Los Angeles. The stage was set, both musically and geographically, for the development of a remarkable talent.

"Although it was a dream of my father’s that I should play the violin, my parents had no idea it would ever turn into this," Josefowicz remembers. "After a few years I realized that I actually had a chance of making it professionally. You have to believe that you can have a crack at whatever you want to do, and in this I had incredible support from my family. Some people would have called it pressure, I guess—it depends who you talk to—but without that kind of help I couldn’t have succeeded." She cites a clear example: when, at age eight, she had virtually finished with the production-line Suzuki method, her parents found a teacher who was able to encourage her individuality as a performer. He lived several hours’ drive away, but twice a week they drove her to and from her lessons.

"I was never in a very strict Suzuki program," she continues, "and that was good, because it can be very ‘by the book.’ Technically, my playing had never really been by the rules—the way I fingered certain things and the way I sometimes used my bowing arm weren’t always in the style they wanted. In those days, of course, I spent most of my time developing technique. But ‘technique’ is a strange word to use, really, because it means something different to each person. To some people it’s dexterity; to others, including me, it’s the ability to convey emotionally exactly what you want to. In the end, technical conventions don’t really matter as long as you get your point across."

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Josefowicz’s school life was a mix of the normal and the extraordinary. Her parents negotiated a special arrangement whereby she studied core subjects during what would otherwise have been free periods; in this way she was able to leave school by 1:30 each afternoon and use the precious hour or two thus saved to drive to her violin lesson or to practice at home. "Looking back on those years, the value of one hour a day was amazing!" she recalls. "I wanted to do well at school—to take full advantage of what was being offered to me—and of course I had homework. So there was a huge amount of juggling to do. I must say, I’m glad that part of my life is over."

While her brother, three years her junior, was leading an ordinary, nonmusical life (now 19, he’s studying at the University of California at Berkeley), Leila was becoming a child star and joining the local celebrity circuit. "There were a lot of gala evenings in downtown L.A. and Beverley Hills, honoring presidents or stars, and the prodigies used to go along and perform," she explains. "I took part in lots of these galas and got to meet a lot of presidents! I was always the little kid who had to wow everybody, you know? When I was ten, the producer of one of these evenings was put in charge of a TV tribute to Bob Hope, to be broadcast nationwide, and he included me in the show.

"It was a huge event. Reagan made a speech, as did Bob Hope. Andrew Lloyd Webber made a special appearance, and the Martha Graham Dance Company was there. Even [pianist] Van Cliburn played in the show. So I was in amazing company and received an enormous amount of media coverage. But I didn’t have any idea at the time just what it all meant. It’s funny: if I hadn’t grown up in Los Angeles, the amount of media attention I got would have been completely different. That is, if I got any at all. In this business, so much can rely on just one event that suddenly changes the scope of things."

It’s not to diminish Josefowicz’s huge talent to suggest that her early celebrity was founded largely on youth. That, after all, is the basis of a child prodigy’s appeal. It’s well known, too, that not every child star survives the transition into adulthood, either musically or psychologically. For some young shoulders, the pressures are too great.

"Prodigies grow up with their instruments from such a young age," Josefowicz says, "and they’re trained to think only in terms of music. This makes you work very, very hard and maintain the right priorities to achieve your goal of becoming a world-class player. Practicing is, in fact, not something you must do for a certain amount of hours every day. It’s not the same as an athlete’s training. But as a young musician who does need to practice every day because you have to develop a certain amount of technique, you’re made to believe it is.

"Fortunately, I went to public schools because my parents thought it would be better for my social life. They were absolutely right, though I’m still discovering the whole business of ‘personal relations.’ It’s important for a musician, because you can’t rely just on playing; to make music with people, you have to associate with them." Presumably you also have to know how to communicate your feelings? "Exactly. Music is so human. So the players who can develop relationships with other performers always do better.

"I’d say that only in the last few years have I started to find my ‘voice.’ Although playing always felt comfortable and natural to me, there’s such a difference now in knowing what I want to do musically, and in getting the kind of sounds I’ve wanted to have. It’s amazing to me how few performers exploit the huge range of possible tone colors, speeds of vibrato, and so on. I mean, we all have to produce many different sounds, yet so many players seem to have only one sound."

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From age 13 to 18, Josefowicz studied at the Curtis Institute with Joseph Brodsky and Jaime Laredo, and her parents moved to Philadelphia to be with her. (Her father’s employers have also been very supportive of her career, and in this instance found a job for him in the local branch of the company.) By the end of this period she had signed with IMG Artists and secured an exclusive recording contract with Philips Classics (now part of the Universal Music group). She was introduced to the label by conductor Sir Neville Marriner, who had worked with her while directing the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Costa Pilavaachi, then head of Philips in Amsterdam (and now with the London office), took some colleagues to hear her audition and came away impressed.

"We all know that the music we love is fantastic," he explains, "but you need the right artist, with the right personality, to communicate that to each new generation. Ask a young person today if they’ve ever heard of Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, and you’ll find they haven’t. But they’ll discover the great concertos and sonatas through a performer they can identify with. When we heard Leila we felt she was that type of artist."

Her first recording for Philips, the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius Concertos, was made in 1995. Why, I ask, did she put herself on the line by choosing such demanding works for her debut album?

"That’s another example of something I wasn’t really aware of while I was doing it!" she laughs. "I guess it was the innocence of youth. Those were the pieces I was performing the most around that time, so I suppose it was inevitable that I should record them.

"Of course, I knew there were lots of other versions available, but I’ve always believed that it’s best to forget about what everyone else is doing. The way to be most free as a performer is to not really care what other people think about you, and to not worry about what others have done in the past. You should focus on what you want to do, and then go for it. This is advice that I’d give to every other violinist out there—to every musician, in fact."

Since establishing an international career, Josefowicz has been called upon to collaborate with some of the most highly respected names in the business, not least in the sphere of chamber music. When I ask about the importance of this part of her musical life, she replies without hesitation. "Chamber music is essential. It varies a career, and fortifies it. And there’s nothing more thrilling than really hitting it off with one of your colleagues." Pianist André Watts is one of her favorite collaborators, and she describes their working relationship as unusually intimate and fulfilling.

She has also established valuable friendships at cellist Truls Mørk’s festival in Norway, which she attends every summer. "Last year I did the Kreutzer Sonata there with [pianist] Martha Argerich. That was a real thrill, I can tell you! Her playing was incredible. But you know, what was actually more incredible was communicating with her outside the music, and getting to know her as a person. I must say that when you meet the real personalities out there, you discover that what they do is almost secondary to who they are."

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pageOne imagines that Josefowicz’s early talent and ambition must have resulted in some feelings of isolation. "I think everyone feels isolated in their own way," she muses, "and you certainly don’t have to be a ‘star.’ We’re all human, and we share many of the same feelings. I’m positive of that. I guess the only difference is that I’m well known! But the question of isolation is certainly interesting. I mean, the lifestyle of this whole business is awful. I’ll not mince words about that.

"It’s not only awful, of course. It’s great for sightseeing, if you have time. If you don’t, then all you see is the hotel rooms, and that’s not usually much of a sight. So what you end up truly living for is the music. And that’s a big part of my life. But I’ve discovered in the last few years that it can’t be the only part. I won’t be satisfied to live only through music. Playing concerts is an intense experience, I must say, but I need as much intensity in my personal life as well."

As with most questions about her early life, Josefowicz’s answer has returned the conversation to the present day. Her focus on the here and now highlights the fact that the label of child prodigy can stay with a musician for too long, coloring our view of someone who is actually an adult artist. She certainly feels that she outgrew that label years ago and is keen to repeat that she’s now at a very different stage of her life—physically, mentally, and emotionally. "I’m making a lot of mature decisions these days," she declares proudly.

The intensity she craved in her personal life has come with marriage to conductor Kristjan Jaarvi, brother of Paavo and son of Neeme. He is currently assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Their home is in New York, but they’ve recently acquired a second in Florida where, she says, they plan to do most of their "real living." Their first child, a son, was due in April. "That’s a pretty incredible thing," she smiles, "and it shows how much my life has changed. It’s forcing me to take charge and think more seriously about things that I’d otherwise probably let slip, and I’m extremely glad about that."

As Josefowicz enters this new stage of her life, her fans can expect the direction of her career to change. She’s already reduced the number of performances she gives and is reevaluating where, what, and with whom she plays. "What really counts," she says, "is playing the pieces that you want to play, in places that matter. That way, it’ll seem like you’re playing everywhere when you’re not! But if you go where anyone asks you to go, and perform repertoire that you’re not completely excited about, it won’t mean much to you."

Pilavaachi declares that Philips has no intention of dragging her into the recording studio against her will. "We’ve always tried to follow her," he explains, "in the sense that we only record what she’s ready to record. That’s why you’ve seen such a variety of repertoire from her. The short encore pieces, the Grieg Sonata, the Messiaen, and Bartók—these are pieces that mean something to her. We knew those discs wouldn’t find a huge market, but we have to allow her to develop and grow. There’s no rush."

The most noticeable adjustment will be a greater emphasis on 20th-century and contemporary repertoire at the expense of the "classics." Josefowicz is currently preparing John Adams’ Violin Concerto for performances next year in Canada and Europe, and she is eager to see the concerto that Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür has just finished. "He didn’t compose it specifically for me, but when we play these pieces, we have to pretend they were written for us personally, don’t we?" she laughs. "For me, new music is all about giving people an experience in which no predictions are involved. Part of the thrill of going to see a new movie, for example, is that you’ve never experienced it before; but classical music is often not like that at all.

"Of course, it’s interesting to see what different performers can do with something familiar, and I really enjoy playing the standard works. But it’s even more interesting to hear something that’s only just been written, that’s just starting to be played. What excites me about contemporary music is that the traditions and rules that governed composition of the ‘classics’ can’t be applied anymore. There are no boundaries to what you can do. Learning a big new piece like the Adams is a huge job, though—you can’t assume anything about it, and you can’t rely on anything by ear. When my son is born, I’ll be able to spend a few hours a day on the Concerto, which will be great."

There’s time for a final question—one that’s difficult for any musician to answer. Since Josefowicz declared earlier in our conversation that, for a musician, personality is "absolutely everything," I ask her how she would describe her own. She thinks for a few seconds, then replies, "I guess there’s a very outgoing side to me—almost attention-seeking. I mean, those of us who go on stage in front of people have to want a certain amount of attention, otherwise we wouldn’t find it enjoyable. There’s also an element of looking to take risks—I’ve been wanting to do this more and more, both personally and professionally, because I don’t want to miss out on anything.

"What else can I say? I like to take charge of things, but not by sitting in the driver’s seat, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to be in everyone’s face. I prefer to draw people in, have them ask questions, and leave them wanting more!"

And with that, she’s off for a meal with her husband, who’s flown over from the U.S. to be with her.

Still young, Leila Josefowicz has survived the transition from child prodigy to mature artist. Quietly confident, she nevertheless retains a girlish quality that sits oddly but endearingly with the twin profiles of international virtuoso and mother to be. No matter: in both her personal and professional lives, there’s much to look forward to. As Costa Pilavaachi concludes, "With an artist like her, this is just the beginning."


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