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ARCHIVE: Minnesota Orchestra (November 2019)

Originally published 11/2/2019

Thirty-two years ago I coached and played in a quartet with then ten-year-old Leila Josefowicz at ENCORE. She was already gaining attention as an exceptionally gifted violinist. Her teacher, the esteemed Robert Lipsett, was securing her set-up and technique with his highly successful regimen of scales and the model of Jascha Heifetz. That secure foundation was on display last night in Stravinsky’s violin concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. Leila’s intonation is exceptional, even by today’s high standards. Her left hand moves with superb efficiency, keeping close to the fingerboard with no excess motion. Of particular interest was her formation of the “Passage Chord,” the interval of an 11th that begins each movement and was at first thought to be unplayable. Rather than placing the first finger and reaching up, she placed the fourth finger and reached back, stretching the hand across the middle. This is a technique I observed with Lillian Fuchs, the great violist and teacher, who was small of stature and played a normal sized viola. In addition to stretches, Leila leaped to high notes and double-stops with amazing accuracy. Her vibrato shimmered, without any excessive throbbing. This leaner style fit the cool, “cool,” and objective character of the Stravinsky. No less impressive was Leila’s use of the bow. Legato passages saw an arrow straight bow planted firmly on a sounding-point track. Off-the string passages flew with deft precision. Sometimes, the bow became a percussion instrument adding variety to the tone colors and highlighting the character. It was a lesson in balance between the two hands– when the bow is flying, the left hand needs to be controlled and close to the fingerboard. Leila’s technique has absolutely no flaws or weaknesses. Her genius mentality enables her to play and understand any concerto, old or new, without limits.

I will write about the concert with the Minnesota Orchestra later. I look forward to hearing this program again tonight.

Originally published 11/3/2019

This weekend I attended two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Juraj Valčuha. Leila Josefowicz was violin soloist in Stravinsky’s violin concerto. The program began with Im Sommerwind by Anton Webern and concluded with An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss.

An early work by a 20-year old Webern, Im Sommerwind predates his study with Arnold Schoenberg and his embracing of twelve-tone music composition. Stylistically, it often sounds similar to the music of Richard Strauss that followed years later. It also has touches of Dukas and Debussy, making it sound like German spoken with a French accent. Webern included instructions to play passages “with tender expression” and “very soft and tender.” Valčuha led the orchestra’s basses and celli in an impossibly soft, perfectly voiced opening. The music slowly and gradually unfolded like an opening flower, all the while carefully modulated by Valčuha. Highly chromatic passages in French horns and violins were executed with clarity and precision. The louder sections were played with the balance and brilliance that would be repeated after intermission. The work ended as it began, inaudibly, as if it was all a dream.

Stravinsky’s violin concerto was written in 1931, during his neo-classical period. The three movements–Toccata, Aria, Capriccio– have titles that suggest works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Indeed, the Bach Concerto for Two Violins was a source of inspiration, and duet combinations with the solo violin run throughout the concerto. The tricky mixed-meter ensemble was maintained by Valčuha’s attentive and precise conducting, as well as Josefowicz’ chamber music style collaboration with her various duet partners. These included flute, bassoon, violin, and cello, all expertly played. Josefowicz played with amazing accuracy and an unlimited palette of colors and characters. (I wrote more about this here yesterday.) Various sections of the concerto abruptly shift gears, with conductor, soloist, and orchestra all in sync. Saturday’s audience clapped after the first movement in recognition of the superb performance unfolding before them. There were many empty seats, perhaps due to a 20th century first half. Those not in attendance missed an opportunity to hear this music performed at the highest possible level anywhere.

Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is less well known than some of his more familiar tone poems, perhaps due to the required colossal orchestra and its extreme difficulty. It covers the ascent and descent of an Alpine peak, complete with a violent thunderstorm. Being Strauss, it has powerful brass laden sections that featured a beautiful French horn solo and clarion trumpet solos. Woodwind solos were uniformly excellent, with spot on intonation, even with multiple instruments playing in unison. Untypical of Strauss is an extensive slow and soft section that concludes the work, one of the longest in Strauss’ output. Following a beautiful woodwind opening, the Minnesota strings played with tenderness and delicacy, all directed with expression and restraint by Valčuha.

It is hard to imagine a finer performance of this work than that presented by Valčuha and the Minnesota Orchestra. It seemed to be an ideal combination of conductor and orchestra. Valčuha places the priority on the music, delivering it with integrity and a commitment to excellence. This matches the approach of this orchestra, which could be called the American Concertgebouw Orchestra. As the orchestra searches for a music director to follow the esteemed Osmo Vanska, it would be wise to keep this conductor on a very short list. His stick technique is among the best, and his honesty and musical integrity are unquestionable. The only unknown may be the extra-musical components of the job of music director, where dealing with boards and patrons requires a certain “schtick” technique. This great orchestra deserves the very best. Best wishes!

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