The Violinist's Finely Tuned Ear for the Extraordinary

"This is the stuff that gets me passionate about what I do," Leila Josefowicz says of "The Dharma at Big Sur" concerto, which she will play with the BSO. (By Christian Steiner)
By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 3, 2007

It's probably lucky for the world that Leila Josefowicz isn't tall. The brilliant young violinist once spent a year as a top model for Chanel, acting as the face of Allure perfume. But her short stint in the fashion world ended almost as soon as it began. "I'm not tall enough to be a model," says Josefowicz, who tops out at a modest 5 feet 5. "I'm tiny! No one's interested in me!"

Well -- that may be a bit of an overstatement. At 29, Josefowicz has emerged as one of the more thought-provoking and distinctive violinists in the world, winning accolades for her radiant tone, consummate technique and fierce sense of adventure. She brought a rarely heard concerto by Paul Hindemith to the Kennedy Center in January, and this week she'll be playing John Adams's "The Dharma at Big Sur" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- a work so radical she had to have a six-string electric violin called the "violectra" built to play it.

"It's an incredible piece -- it just overtakes you," she says of the half-hour concerto, which required her to master the violectra. "It's so daring, and it just builds and builds and builds to an incredible, emotional climax. By the end, you think the hall's going to explode."

The explosiveness, though, is just as likely to come from Josefowicz herself. A driven, Toronto-born prodigy, she began playing the violin at the age of 3, made her Carnegie Hall debut at 16, then graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and recorded the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius while still in her teens.

But even as her career took off, Josefowicz faced an unusual hurdle: her own good looks. By the mid-1990s, the classical field had become swamped with attractive young female musicians -- Vanessa-Mae, Lara St. John and Ofra Harnoy, to name just a few -- and industry marketers were encouraging them to perform in miniskirts, pout for the camera and generally play the sex kitten. Many did; St. John even posed topless, with a discreetly positioned violin, for her debut CD, while violinist Linda Brava bared all for Playboy.

Despite the trend -- Josefowicz was mentioned in a Time magazine article titled "Seductive Strings: Concerto for Cleavage and Orchestra" -- she stayed buttoned up.

"Part of it is plain old self-respect," the artist says in a backstage interview during her earlier visit to Washington. "I've worked so hard for so many years, why distract people with something that has nothing to do with my skill? It doesn't mean you have to be dowdy -- it just means don't throw a twist like that into the mix!"

But when, at 20, Chanel came knocking, she couldn't resist -- and soon found her face staring from magazines over ad copy like: "No more top, middle and bass notes. Allure dispenses with these traditional notions to embrace a multifaceted approach."

Now the whole episode just makes her laugh.

"It's wrong to be selling what sex you are, instead of your art. But Chanel was classy -- it's okay to be classy!" And she insists she didn't make much of a sex symbol anyway: "When I walked on for the Chanel shoot, I was six months pregnant! I was, like, 'Hey, you guys want a twig? Well -- here ya go!' " (She was married at the time to the Estonian-born conductor Kristjan Järvi.)

The violinist's brief foray into modeling may just reflect a restless curiosity. She's friends with writer Anne Rice -- who once dedicated a novel to her -- and her conversation sails effortlessly from rock-and-roll ("Led Zeppelin has a kind of realness that's missing from today's bands") to architecture ("I think Santiago Calatrava is a genius") to fashion design ("Yohji Yamamoto completely changes how you think of the human body").

But her real commitment remains with contemporary classical music. She memorizes everything she performs (including the orchestral parts), so that she's "never worrying about things that shouldn't be mattering," and has become a friend and collaborator with some of the world's top composers, including John Harbison, Oliver Knussen, Steve Mackey and John Adams himself.

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