It is a perpetual contradiction of the music world that its mainstream so eagerly embraces mavericks. Take Bob Dylan; take Franz Schubert. Or take Leila Josefowicz, who has carved out a position as an idiosyncratic embracer of new music — with a MacArthur Foundation award among her many accolades, thank you very much — while remaining solidly positioned with the major orchestras of the world.
Josefowicz on Thursday took the stage of the National Symphony Orchestra reaffirming her maverick stance by eschewing the traditional gorgeous concert gown in favor of a geometric top and pants that, combined with stylishly ruffled hair, evoked the performance artist Laurie Anderson. Josefowicz brought, not surprisingly, a concerto written for her. Her last two appearances with the orchestra were in works by John Adams (who wrote her a new violin concerto, “Scheherazade.2,” in 2015); this week, she comes with a piece from 2009 by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor-composer who left his post at the Los Angeles Philharmonic to give himself more time for composing, and whom critics have been hoping to woo back to a music directorship ever since.
The Salonen violin concerto — here in its first NSO appearances — is an austere narrative that opens with the violin in tangles of solo scrubbing lines, given a halo with licks of harp and celesta and percussion, and carries it through two increasingly complex and chaotic movements (called Pulse I and Pulse II), seared with angry outbursts of marimba and other mallet instruments, before allowing the soloist simply to sing in a concluding movement called simply “Adieu.” It got a strikingly fine performance from all concerned. Josefowicz played beautifully and movingly with a kind of self-effacement, resisting unnecessary pathos, and Christoph Eschenbach and the orchestra partnered her with intensity but without overpowering her.
As is NSO practice, Salonen’s bracing modernism was safely framed with two canonical masterworks. The evening opened with Haydn’s last-ever symphony, number 104 in D Major, in a performance that had the lugubrious intensity that often marks Eschenbach’s rhetoric, an audible effort to say something important. But Schumann’s fourth symphony maintained the standards set in the Salonen piece, from the early, melting horn chords that sounded as if they were summoning the future, and Wagner. Paradoxically, Eschenbach’s episodic approach had a cohesive effect on this tricky, contradictory music, bringing out the joy and warmth as well as the earnestness. The orchestra sounded in fine fettle, stretched in the course of a pleasantly diverse evening.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8.