Few things thrill musicians more than having pieces written expressly for them. But little could have prepared Leila Josefowicz for the violin concerto Steve Mackey composed for her. Mackey had intended to write a high-energy, virtuosic work for Josefowicz. Then, just as he was conceiving the piece, his mother died. Though he kept his commitment to Josefowicz, the concerto’s character shifted markedly because of his loss.
The resultant work, “Beautiful Passing,” had its premiere in Manchester, England, in 2008 and was subsequently performed by Josefowicz in St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Now it’s Washington’s turn to hear a work that is alternatingly defiant and resigned — yet still acrobatic. On Thursday, Josefowicz will perform the concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hannu Lintu at the Kennedy Center on a program that also includes Debussy’s “Images” and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5. (The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.)
Inverting his usual composing process, Mackey, a professor of music at Princeton, made the first move, back in 2007. “Normally someone calls me,” he said, “but in this case, I felt I had a violin concerto in me and that Leila was the right person for it, so I contacted her.”
Though familiar with each other’s work, the two were not really acquainted. “He e-mailed me something like, ‘I’ve been listening to you, and I want to write you a piece. Is that okay?’ ” Josefowicz recalled.
She was especially taken with Mackey’s background as an accomplished rock-and-roll guitarist and with his distinctive compositional voice, which emphasizes rhythm and sonority. “The more I know his music, the more I respect what he’s trying to do,” Josefowicz said. “I’m not saying Steve didn’t have any influences, but he’s a musical free spirit.”
Early on there was talk of a “barn-burner” concerto that would act as a showcase for the violinist’s vaunted technical abilities — Josefowicz, now 34, was a prodigy who made her Carnegie Hall debut while in her teens. But a few months into the writing process, Mackey called to say he was rethinking his approach in the wake of his mother’s death.
“He told me his mind was not in the space to create a celebratory ending,” Josefowicz remembered. “And I encouraged him to go in almost the opposite direction. It all turned out for the best — it being true to his life. The aspect of struggle is a very deep concept throughout: having life and letting go of life.”
The roughly 25-minute, single-movement concerto is divided into two sections separated by a cadenza for the violin. “It’s made up of a few elemental forces, one of which is a kind of anti-force represented by the solo violin, offering serenity, poise and presence of mind,” Mackey said. “That’s very vividly pitted against the glorious cacophony of the orchestra. The orchestra represents the clangor of life — the bull in china shop. It’s not out to get the violin, but it wags its tail and knocks over a city block. These two elements are juxtaposed in many ways, and that plays out over and over again.”
Though specific to Mackey’s own experience, the symbolism is intended to resonate with audiences. “My mother exhibited great poise even as the world around was clanging away,” the composer said. “She actually predicted the day of her death and made a conscious effort to achieve it. She told me, ‘Today’s going to be my last day’ and handed me an envelope labeled ‘Steve’s Survivor Packet.’ Then she said, ‘Tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.’ She died later that day.”
Mackey’s grief included sleepless nights that later became the inspiration for the flickering effect that haunts the concerto, especially the cadenza. He compares the impact to an electrical charge vacillating between on and off. “There are very subtle differences between when a person is there and then not there,” he said.
Josefowicz links the technique to Mackey’s facility on the electric guitar. “He uses harmonics in a very unusual way,” she said. “I’d never been asked to play a harmonic and a solid note at the same time, and I wasn’t sure it could be done. But it can be done. It sounds like magic. The contrast between the ethereal and grunt bass notes is very striking.”
The violinist’s partner for the National Symphony concerts, Hannu Lintu, is a rising Finnish conductor. And though he and Josefowicz have not previously performed “Beautiful Passing” together, they have partnered before, performing Thomas Ades’s Violin Concerto in Ottawa last October.
“Leila respects the score but is never pedantic,” Lintu said. “She’s not only able to deliver the composer’s message, but she’ll do it in her own voice — a sign of a true artist. Plus, her sense of tempo and timing are impeccable. This work seems to mean much to her. I’m sure she’ll give a performance which is devoted and emotional but never sentimental.”
His characterization rings true for an artist who, though still young, has made her mark on the musical scene for some time. And yet varied as her experience has been, her championing of “Beautiful Passing” ranks as a highlight. “To be with Steve at this time in his life was very moving,” she said. “It would be weird to say it was lucky for me. But I was the recipient of what I think is his most profound piece. Other pieces touch on it, but this goes the whole way.”
And Mackey could hardly have found a greater exponent. “Leila really feels it,” Mackey said. “She captures all these different colors. We made a deal that if I got her the score a year before the premiere, she’d memorize it. And I think that’s important here. There’s no music stand; it’s all from the heart. It takes a great virtuoso like her to make it not seem like an experiment, but to make it mean something.”
Mermelstein is a freelance writer.
7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
$20-$85. Concert Hall, Kennedy Center.
Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.