Violinist Leila Josefowicz made a welcome return to the Triangle with an enterprising program that juxtaposed two rarely heard Romantic works with three twentieth-century pieces. She is a familiar artist from her guest appearances on concert series and with orchestras throughout both the Triad and Triangle portions of Piedmont NC. I hope the lack of “chestnuts” was not responsible for a less than full house for this Duke Performances concert.. Music lovers on hand were rewarded with some pretty spectacular violin pyrotechnics. Pianist John Novacek scaled his dynamics perfectly despite having the Steinway’s lid fully raised. Within this dynamic, he still provided plenty of give-and-take with Josefowicz.

Josefowicz blew away any lingering musical cobwebs with her first selection, Scherzo in C minor, Sonatensatz from the F-A-E Sonata. This four-movement work is a composite of the efforts of three composers. In 1853, the established twenty-two year-old violinist-composer Joseph Joachim was introduced to the twenty year-old Brahms. Brahms was so impressed he introduced Joachim to Robert Schumann (1833-1897) and his wife Clara. The couples’ conservative and Romantic approach to music stood in contrast to the Radical school of opera composer Wagner and piano virtuoso Liszt. Schumann proposed he, Brahms, and a twenty-four year-old Albert Dietrich each compose a violin sonata movement to be presented to Joachim who was to guess who composed which movement. Dietrich composed the first movement and Schumann did the second and fourth movements. Only the third, the Scherzo composed by Brahms, is heard with any frequency.

When Josefowicz slashed her bow into the violin strings for the opening notes of Brahms’ Scherzo, I was reminded of Arnold Schoenberg’s essay “Brahms the Progressive” in which he sought to link the methods of the modernists with those of the conservative Brahms. This Scherzo is the product of the young Brahms, not the established doyen of plush scores, complex structures, and “Autumnal” yearnings for things lost. Josefowicz took no prisoners as she attacked the piece, and she made little effort to sugarcoat it. This piece is of the same cloth as Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and First Symphony. Novacek matched Josefowicz’s assault and revealed some nice inner detailing along the way.

Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105, dates from 1851 shortly before the effects of his manic-depressive disorder led to his hospitalization in 1854. In my favorite “crutch,” Guide to Sonatas, Melvin Berger writes “Schumann’s creative spark produced some very fine music…on a level equal to his most outstanding compositions.” It is in three movements: the first courses with waves of passion, the brief second movement exudes charm, while the finale combines agitated energy with sparkling perpetual motion before coming to a last crescendo followed by three unexpected chords. Both Berger and the Duke program annotator, Susan Halpern (Duke 2013), allude this feeling of irresolution may reflect Schumann’s growing illness. Experienced string player-author Berger notes the sonata’s writing is “neither grateful nor idiomatic for the instruments.”

In contrast to the Brahms, Josefowicz brought out beauty and richness of tone in the Schumann Violin Sonata No. 1. Warmth of sound was never sacrificed in the dynamic outer movements and the middle movement was a gorgeous, peaceful jewel in the hands of the violinist and Novacek. The pianist’s kaleidoscope of tonal color and ability to bring out inner voices continued to delight the listener.

Lovers of musical nationalism had to have been in “hog heaven” with Josefowicz’s after-intermission opener, Suite Populaire Espagnole for violin and piano by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) in an arrangement by Paul Kochanski. It consists of six varied character pieces reflecting regional Spanish songs or dances. No. 1 “El Paño Moruno,” No. 4 “Polo,” and No. 6 “Jota” feature surging rhythms and a rich variety of pizzicatos. No. 2 “Nana” is lovely with hushed, muted dynamics and No. 5, also quiet, featured bell-effects in the piano. No. 3 “Canción” combines glassy high harmonics with interesting rhythms. Josefowicz and Novacek played the socks off these pieces! What icy, pure intonation in the high string harmonics! What a wide plethora of different pizzicatos! What infectious rhythms!

What I like about works by Anton Webern and those of Josefowicz’s next selection, György Kurtág (b.1926), is the succinctness of their works. In my favorite Kurtág work, Hommage à Mihály András, 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op. 13, some movements race by in under 30 seconds. He is more fulsome in Three Pieces, Op. 14e. The violin is muted for “Öd und Traurig (desolate and sad) supported by a spare keyboard part. “Vivo” (Lively) is dynamic and has eerie high string harmonics. “Aus der Ferne” (From a Distance) featured hushed pppp dynamics, a slow tempo, and a keyboard support that almost seemed like isolated notes. There seemed to be no end to the number of technical arrows in Josefowicz’s quiver: perfect intonation, and a range of dynamics able to be refined in an infinite number of increments. Novacek’s accompaniments fit like a glove.

My interest in “Minimalism” is limited. Philip Glass’ music seems to me to be too little for far too long, but I find I do like several of the minimalist scores of John Adams (b. 1947). His “The Chairman Dances” from his opera Nixon in China has been played in the area, most recently by the Greensboro Symphony under Dmitri Sitkovetsky. Adams successfully balances sustained repetitions with variations that can capture the listener’s attention. Adams’ Road Movies (1995) has three movements, “Relaxed Groove,” “Meditative,” and “40% Swing.” The first is propulsive and rhythmic with considerable independent lines for the instruments. The second is a spare score with what Adams calls “a simple meditation of several small motives.” The title “40% Swing” comes from the setting of a calibration on a MIDI sequencer. Adams describes it as a giddy blend of Charles Ives-type ragtime and “a rideout chorus by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, circa 1939.” Josefowicz and Novacek were by turns whirling dervishes in fast sections or doing a stylized tai chi during quiet parts. It was fascinating to watch Novacek in “Meditation” play, not crossed hands, but using his left hand to play the black keys while his enclosed right hand played the white keys.

The encore was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” arranged for violin and piano by Claus Orgermann. Josefowicz played the entire melody seamlessly and precisely using only the A string.