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To Perform With Pacific Symphony in O.C. : At the Age of 11, Violinist Has Talent--and Time--on Her Side

When the Harvard-Radcliffe Club wished to honor Leonard Bernstein, Leila Josefowicz was among the invited performers.

Neville Mariner has asked her to solo with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra. She has a working relationship with the international Management Group, which handles the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Andre Watts. Van Cliburn has said “she has the world at her feet.”

She’s 11.

Leila, who performed at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time when she was 9, will take center stage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center twice this week, playing Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor on Wednesday and Thursday with Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony.

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Doors have been opening for her ever since she began studying with Robert Lipsett 3 years ago. A teacher at the R.D. Colburn (formerly Community) School of Performing Arts near USC, Lipsett doesn’t make a practice of accepting 8-year-old students, but he agreed to take on Leila the first time he heard her.

“She had no bad habits,” Lipsett remembers. “The only question I had was my awareness of the commitment I was making. But I felt she was unusual. She has a tremendous desire to do well. You can’t create that in a child.”

Meanwhile, Lipsett says, although she leads a life that can hardly be called normal for a child her age, Leila is “one of the happiest, best-adjusted kids I know.”

Attending a middle school near her home in Ventura County, she loves to read and excels in sports. Despite the frequent absences created by her rehearsal and concert schedule, she not only keeps up with her academic work but gets A’s. She plays viola in the school orchestra and is learning piano.

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Last year Leila took up trumpet in the school band (with Lipsett’s blessing--in fact, he loaned her a trumpet he had played in school). Although she thoroughly enjoyed the musical excursion, she had to give it up for lack of time. It was suggested that she could have quit the violin instead. She responded, laughing: “No way, man!”

Indeed, when you have played an instrument since the age of 3, it can be a hard habit to break. The youngster and her father, Jack Josefowicz, a physicist, began lessons at the same time, and they practiced together. With 10 years of classical guitar studies behind him, Jack Josefowicz has a respectable knowledge of music. But Leila talked him out of continuing with the violin.

“Back then,” she recalls, “my intonation wasn’t too good. But even I could tell that his was worse.”

Jack Josefowicz remains involved with his daughter’s studies, however. Twice a week, he drives her to lessons at Lipsett’s San Fernando Valley home, and he takes notes while teacher and student work.

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Leila averages about 28 hours of practice a week. Her day begins at 6 a.m. with an hour or two on the violin before school. After school comes homework, then a little more practice. There may be time to play with Molly, the golden retriever, or to try a few rounds of tetherball with younger brother Steven. Because of the danger to her hands, sports such as basketball and volleyball are forbidden, but a concession is made for tetherball--provided Leila wears her boxing gloves.

After dinner, there’s homework to finish, and an evening violin session with Dad sitting in as coach and cheering section. His presence “makes it easier,” Leila says. “It keeps you going.” Some evenings may be spent trying out new piano accompanists, listening to classical music or, on weekends, attending a concert--if she isn’t playing in one.

Not on the menu: television. Leila admits that her school friends can’t relate to the violin taking complete precedence over TV. “They’re nice about it and everything,” she says, “but they don’t really understand.”

The family has a television and a videocassette recorder, but they are for a growing collection of Leila tapes--Leila on “The Smothers Brothers,” Leila at the Crystal Cathedral, the Easter Seal Telethon, the Des O’Connor Show in London, “A Tribute to Bob Hope.”

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The Bob Hope show, in January of 1988, was one of Leila’s biggest breaks. Of all the performers participating in the dedication of the McCallum Theater in the Bob Hope Cultural Center--Lucille Ball, Diahann Carroll and Van Cliburn, to name a few--Leila was the only one who received a standing ovation.

The audience included then-President Ronald Reagan and former President Gerald R. Ford. Leila had fun collecting autographs, but not much time for savoring success--she fell asleep on the way home from Palm Desert.

Lipsett often refers to “the sense of destiny” that adds to the considerable charisma that Leila already has as a performer. And it does seem as if everything falls into place for her.

Take her instrument, a 250-year-old piece of art by Guarnerius Del Gesu, whose work is on par with the legendary Stradivarius. She got it late last year when a representative from rare instrument dealers Bein & Fushi of Chicago happened to visit Lipsett toward the end of one of Leila’s lessons.

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As Lipsett tells it, Fushi was so excited that she loaned the “Sennhauser” Del Gesu to Leila. It was an opportune time in the youngster’s development. “She was about to outgrow the instrument she’d been using--not in size, but in what the instrument could do,” Lipsett said. “The Del Gesu is ideal for her.”

Yet her teacher is quick to assert that Leila’s “own desire and talent make (things) happen.” Lipsett does not perceive her as a victim of the “trained seal” syndrome sometimes seen with precocious talents. “She has such instincts,” he says. “In performance, it’s on her shoulders. She can save a situation. That can’t be taught.”

Her parents are concerned too that their daughter not be treated like a “trained seal,” for reasons personal as well as professional. Mother Wendy says she tries to “keep things calm and running smoothly, otherwise the stress on Leila would be terrific. We want to keep it positive. She has to have fun.”

According to Leila, concerts are fun. “You focus all your time, and the goal is to make the concert good. Then when you do it, you get something--you reach the goal,” she says.

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She doesn’t appear nervous on stage. “You know you’ve worked hard, so you can’t do too awful,” she explains. “You do your best. That’s as much as anyone can ask.”

Her short-term goals include adding works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven to her 10-concerto repertoire (a number appropriate to her age, according to Lipsett) that already includes works by Bruch, Mendelssohn and Mozart. A long-term aspiration is to play Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Listening to her now, the goal seems perfectly reasonable.

Leila Josefowicz will be featured soloist at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday with the Pacific Symphony, conducted by Keith Clark, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program will include Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite 1919" and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Tickets: $9 to $49. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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