Stalinist Succession

by Carrie Scozarro & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ebruary 1948, Leningrad. Dmitri Shostakovich is working on the score of a violin concerto when he receives word that the Central Committee of the Communist Party has condemned his work for being "formalistic ... and anti-democratic."

And when Josef Stalin said you were opposed to the best interests of the Soviet workers, it could mean the Siberian gulag. Or worse.

Leila Josefowicz, Friday night's soloist with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, listens to my characterization of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 -- the gloom of music written under Stalinist repression, all that Slavic seriousness, those melancholy passages stretching like bleak Russian steppes off toward an unnamed fate...

And then she puts me in a reverse Stalin hammerlock.

"It's not simply melancholy and gloomy," she says. "And I am sure that, as a member of the press, you will be careful not to proclaim it as such."

Josef had been fixated on how Shostakovich was too depressing; now Josefowicz is insisting that he's not so depressing after all.

And the 28-year-old violin virtuoso -- LEE-luh joe-SEFF-uh-wits -- has the right to make such pronouncements. She recorded Shostakovich's A minor concerto just last month with Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and she has performed it a dozen times in the past year -- in the United States, Switzerland, Finland, Brazil, Germany and the U.K.

She acknowledges the pressure the composer was under: "Shostakovich had been denounced by Stalin. He had been very loved before the denouncement, but once it came, people like Shostakovich. and Khachaturian and Prokofiev tumbled into unpopularity," she says.

"Every note was scrutinized. Because if you did something wrong -- well, millions of people ended up dead."

Shostakovich kept the score boxed up for seven years before the legendary David Oistrakh revealed this masterpiece to Russian and American audiences in 1955.

Josefowicz regards the score as triumphant. "What's amazing about this piece," she says, "is that Shostakovich utilized this tension to benefit his music compositionally. The whole situation of this piece -- how it was composed -- is actually very inspiring and extremely therapeutic. It's about overcoming bad circumstances.

"With Shostakovich, often there is a prologue of sorts, and then you get into the middle of the activity -- if you will, the battle scene. Something very dramatic, full of activity, that gives the emotions a pathway.

"The second movement is the physical story of what's happening, and then the third movement is the emotional aftermath -- it's a passacaglia [a stately Italian Renaissance dance form with repeated measures in the bass line]. The same measures are repeated by different members of the orchestra and then by the violin. Emotionally, the violin is the most passionate.

"The end of the passacaglia and the start of the cadenza -- they're testing the boundaries of what a single soloist can exclaim."

The cadenza that bridges the third movement and the final Burlesque -- an elaborate solo written by the composer himself -- is often regarded as one of the most technically demanding and emotionally taxing cadenzas ever written. For violinists, it's one of the Himalayas.

"The cadenza starts out quiet and slow, then gradually increases in speed," she says. "It's huge, as if a plane is taking off from the ground.

"I just found a way through it. I love challenges. I forget about how a huge a feat it is, that there's so much to be said -- I just get busy and forget about how great it is."

She gets even more enthusiastic. "The Shostakovich is, at this point, my favorite piece to play," she declares. "It connects with a lot of things that are going on in my personal life. I mean, there aren't any sections that I'm having trouble playing" -- this, of one of the most difficult violin concertos in the repertoire --"but my nature as a musician is that there are always goals that I am working toward.

"In the faster movements, there's an incredible sense of rhythm, but you have to keep that energy, at all costs, under control. The slower movements are really very, very emotional. It's about survival and recovery -- it's about feeling more than you thought possible. And then the last movement is an incredible dance. No one can say that this isn't a victorious ending."

The self-display of that enormous cadenza, though, is still on her mind. "You know, this has been called a rock star piece," she says, "because you are able to get that far into the music."

And Leila Josefowicz, a rock star of the classical world, with hands so valuable that she plays volleyball wearing boxing gloves, has loaded her iPod with "everything from [German composer Alfred] Schnittke to the Red Hot Chili Peppers." She's enjoying life enough -- "tickling my 5-year-old and going shopping" -- that she's playing right through the gloom of Shostakovich and rocking straight into his triumphs.

The Spokane Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky's The Tempest, Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra on Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15-$35. Spokane Opera House, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Visit or call 624-1200.