Interview: Violinist Josef Špacek talks Tolkien

HE MAY be leader of the mighty Czech Philharmonic, but Josef Špacek still has ambitions to develop his solo career, writes David Kettle
Violinist Josef Spacek. Picture: ContributedViolinist Josef Spacek. Picture: Contributed
Violinist Josef Spacek. Picture: Contributed

It might sound really stupid, but when I first heard The Lark Ascending I thought to myself that it sounded just like Lord of the Rings.” Czech violinist Josef Špacek’s comparison isn’t as fanciful as it may seem: both Vaughan Williams’s lyrical masterpiece for violin and orchestra and Tolkein’s epic saga are English through and through, as well as both being the products of wartime trauma and post-war readjustment.

But it still shows just how little-known that piece of music – recently voted Britain’s best-loved classical work by Classic FM listeners – is in Špacek’s homeland. Nevertheless, it is the centrepiece of his upcoming concert at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor Jirí Belohlávek, stop two in a UK tour.

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The Lark Ascending is obviously new to me,” Špacek continues, “but I’m very excited about it. It’s such a beautiful piece, and so English – in the same way that Dvorák or Smetana are so Czech. It’s hard to say what I as a Czech player will be bringing to it in particular. I think I have too much respect for the music to try and over-exaggerate any aspects of it – it’s a very simple, beautiful and pure piece, and that’s how I’ll be approaching it.”

Just 28, Špacek is already being hailed as one of tomorrow’s greats for his combination of virtuoso pyrotechnics and interpretative insights. His Edinburgh concert – and indeed the orchestra’s UK tour as a whole – will give him the chance to strut his solo skills, but his day job is as the Czech Philharmonic’s concertmaster – equivalent to leader – a role that he was offered while still a student.

“I’d spent seven years studying in the States,” he explains, “at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and New York’s Juilliard School, and this position opened up during my last year in Juilliard. So I thought: why don’t I try for it? When I joined the orchestra I was not just the youngest concertmaster, but also the youngest person in the whole orchestra at that moment.”

Špacek’s early history with the orchestra helped his decision: he knew it intimately through his father, Josef Špacek Sr, who had been a cellist while Josef Jr was growing up, and still plays in the orchestra. “We moved to Prague when I was about six, and I’ve been going to Czech Philharmonic concerts ever since then. It’s the orchestra I’ve listened to most by far. Because of my dad there was a very smooth transition in going into the orchestra, and I had a lot of respect from my colleagues too.”

The Czech Philharmonic is one of the world’s most distinctive orchestras, with a sound – rich, velvety strings, bright woodwind, brass and horns with a slight vibrato wobble to their playing – that is immediately recognisable. “For me, a lot of the orchestra’s sound comes down to the strings,” Špacek says. “The Czech violin school has great names such as Kubelík and Suk, and we have a really nice, warm sound when we play, as well as almost a folksy element, which comes from the background of the players.

“The Czech Philharmonic is quite a rarity in the world now, in that we’re not a very international orchestra. Of course we’re very international when it comes to touring, but the members of the orchestra are pretty much all from the Czech Republic, and from similar backgrounds. Even when we’re growing up, everyone knows the same fairytales and the same music, and it grows in you without you even realising it. I think that’s what distinguishes us from more modern, cosmopolitan orchestras.”

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And that individuality is most evident, of course, in music from the orchestra’s Czech homeland – represented in its otherwise multinational Edinburgh concert by orchestral excerpts from Smetana’s folk-inspired opera The Bartered Bride and Dvorák’s big, dramatic Seventh Symphony. “These composers were writing music for us to perform in the same hall we still play in – the Rudolfinum in Prague – and we’re still sitting there week after week playing their music in the same way,” says Špacek. “That’s something we cherish and protect.”

Despite his role within the orchestra, Špacek stresses his desire to continue developing as a soloist. “When you start playing in an orchestra, the stereotype is that people say you stop practising. That’s something I refuse to do – in fact, I’m even considering lowering my commitment with the orchestra and focusing more on my solo career.”

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He’s blunt about the advantages of his position as concertmaster – “of course it’s nice to have the security of a stable job” – but also clear about his solo ambitions: “Returning to the Czech Republic from the US, it seemed easier to build on my concertmaster role with a solo career.”

And significantly, his first solo CD, released to coincide with the UK tour, is an all-Czech affair with the Czech Philharmonic and Belohlávek. “It’s violin concertos by Dvorák, Suk and Janácek,” Špacek says, “and it feels like quite a big responsibility playing these pieces, both representing my country and performing music that’s already been recorded thousands of times.”

The result, though, is as passionate and characterful as you’d expect from that combination of players, and Špacek tackles the fearsome demands of the gleefully disjointed Janácek Concerto in particular with impeccable precision and enormous spirit.

But it’s an entirely different piece that Špacek has chosen to complement Vaughan Williams’s soaring passerine in Edinburgh: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. “They’re two very popular works, but both very different,” he says. “The Mendelssohn comes from the early 19th century, when there were still a lot of rules in a way – of course as a soloist you still have the freedom to portray your own personality through the music, but within some kind of framework.”

It might not quite evoke Frodo and Gandalf, but with the magical, fairy music of its finale, at least, the Mendelssohn Concerto should be just the piece to draw attention to another side to Špacek’s playing – and to highlight his growing international credentials.

Josef Špacek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Jirí Belohlávek perform at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall tomorrow. Špacek’s CD of Dvorák, Suk and Janácek (Supraphon SU 4182-2) is out now