Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek at The Howard Assembly Rooms

Having some familiarity with her recorded performances, I was delighted to learn that the very fine violinist Leila Josefowicz would be gracing the stage of the Howard Assembly Room at the end of September. She was just as her reputation precedes her: excellent and most at home in a repertoire of the twenty-first century, and a more than able fiddler in other areas, too.

Her pianist, John Novacek, I had been previously unaware of: but as well as a fine pianist, my post-concert research tells me he is also a talented composer, for evidence of which, see his Three Rags for Two Pianos.

The programme begins with the crowd-pleasing Valse Triste of Sibelius, arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. The softness and lyricism of the piece allowed Josefowicz quickly to show off the huge palette of sound that she is capable of extracting from her violin. The warmth and richness of her tone in this little dramatic masterpiece told us we were in for a captivating evening.

The remainder of the first half of the programme was occupied with Prokofiev’s F minor Sonata, which, like much of Prokofiev, showed a fantastic sense of humour in its rapid switching between the lyrical and infernal. Throughout, Josefowicz handled the many challenges of Prokofiev’s directions flawlessly (even if I did once see her left hand wrist briefly collapse—albeit with no negative effect on the sound of the music). The particular highlights here were in Josefowicz’s control of counterpoint on the violin—where both voices sang in perfect clarity—and the fiery passages in which the strength of the low G string was used to its fullest capability, sounding as large as a cello.

The interval comes; Josefowicz and Novacek take a bow: she is wearing unusual concert dress consisting of dark jeans and a blouse more of arabesque than drapery; Novacek looks as if he were going to a business meeting after the concert, and doesn’t have time to change afterwards. As my co-attendee and I dissect the first half over a pint of Leodis’ best, we are dismayed to pay £1 for a programme, but, understanding the financial pressures upon the arts, acquiesce.

The second half begins with what seemed to be the soul of the concert, the very fine ‘Calices’ (2009), or ‘Chalices’, by Icelandic contemporary composer, Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). The piece, says our programme—demonstrating its enormous £1 value—is “partly inspired by a series of Arthurian plays”—no small thrill to my colleague and co-attendee, who is a scholar of that sort of business. Three extremely atmospheric, intelligent, and imaginative movements formed this aforementioned soul—and a very fine trinity it was, too. The highlight was the use of plucked strings on the piano in the middle movement, “Lento. Misterioso”, in combination with the sustain pedal, creating harp-like, and even harpsichord-like sonorities.

Next was an arrangement by Otto Wittenbecher of the much-admired (and justly admired) Adagietto from Mahler’s even more glorious 5th Symphony. The arrangement was very intelligently done, but something—we could not decide whether it was in the arrangement or its execution—was lost in this reduction for piano and violin. This is fine, and in the nature of arrangement: but it did not gain anything particularly insightful in this new guise—apart from a sharper clarity in its harmonic movement—to make up for the loss of the beauty of its original version for string orchestra and harp. Although very beautiful, the effect tended to make this vast symphonic ode a piece of nineteenth-century parlour music.

The programme came to a close with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1950 Sonata. This piece seemed an odd choice on which to conclude the programme, being, as it is, intelligent more than it is moving, and moreover, sometimes sardonic to the point of being irritating, as often the twentieth century’s art can be. In this, which seemed a mirror to, or shadow of, the Prokofiev, rather than an interesting variation on it, the audience’s attention did begin to wander, but a nice time was had in those moments when our concentration did return.

Still, the applause evidenced that the evening was thoroughly and highly appreciated by all attendees. After a bow, Novacek sits at the piano, and Josefowicz introduces the encore: “Tune you might know… But I’ll tell you anyway,” she smiles, as the audience laughs: “’Smile,’ by Charlie Chaplin.” The audience warmly chuckles again, and the evening comes to a divine close on a perfectly chosen, piece—humane, comic, and sweet. Bravo, Leila and John: Leeds will be happy to have you back any time.

The Howard Assembly Room has a wonderful array of events lined up for this Autumn, including musical settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Messiaen’s Harawi, the jazz-classical crossover pianist Uri Caine, and several more, all at very reasonable prices. Visit howardassemblyroom.co.uk for details.


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Charles Eager

Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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