My guest in today’s Arts is violinist Josef Špaček, who has emerged as one of the Czech Republic’s most talented virtuosos. Špaček – a graduate from the Juilliard School – is a concertmaster with the Czech Philharmonic and in less than a fortnight he will be performing at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. He has also just released his debut CD with recordings of Prokofiev, Janáček and Smetana.
“I come from a musical family: my father is a cello player and plays in the Czech Philharmonic, while my mum always had also a musical upbringing because my grandpa was a member of a choir and she learned how to play guitar. So for me it was very natural to pick up the violin when I was a kid.”
How old, in fact, were you because I read that you started playing at six but elsewhere that you began playing at three... which is it?
“I started lessons at six but I discovered the violin we had at home when I was three. I found it in a closet in my parents’ room. So I began fooling around with it. My only recollection though is the screeching sounds I made, that I played open strings and that I sang fairy tale tunes to it.”
What influence did your father have: did he step aside for your teacher or did he also play a role?
“No, my family had a direct impact. For the first seven years at least my father practiced with me, along with my teacher, so it was 50/50. Later on when I was about 13 I started practicing more on my own and becoming more independent. After that I was mostly on my own and with my teachers.”
One more question about growing up in your family: to my mind there must have been music playing all the time, either someone listening or someone practicing...
You studied for seven years in the US, at the Curtis Institute and at Julliard under professors like Shmuel Ashkenasi and Itzhak Perlman; in a few words how would you summarise what they taught you?
“All my teachers had a huge impact on me, focussing on different things: some focussed on stage presence, some focussed on my technique, on my sound, some focussed on my character, on my personality, so it was just a great mixture of influences that I came across. And I value every single one.”
Of course it has been a while since you have been a student: nevertheless, was there any particular teacher or professor who was the terror of the classroom?
“Well my beginnings were rather strict. as a boy I had a teacher who was rather strict but she was also one of the best teachers I ever had. For a young boy, learning the violin can be difficult. When you are a kid you don’t want to practice, you want to be outside with your friends. But I think I found a good balance between practice and free time and she was a great tutor – she really made me practice!”
Having studied in the US for so long, did you consider staying on professionally?
“I did, also because my wife is from the US (laughs). I considered having a career in the States but when I was about to graduate and was considering what to do next, the position for concertmaster opened with the Czech Philharmonic. I felt that would be a great starting point. One of the advantages of working for a European orchestra is that the workload is a lot less than in America. Here most orchestras are funded by the government and there are more members for one position. So I share the post of concertmaster and alter with the other player, splitting my time in half which allows me to take part in other projects, pursuing a solo career and also to do chamber music. I don’t think that would be as possible in the US, I would not have the luxury of doing more than one thing.”
“Very. It was very important even though I didn’t win the prize. But I gained a lot of contacts and began working with a manager from Brussels and it gave me a lot of publicity which is very important for musicians. I consider it a key moment in my life. In the final, I performed the Sibelius violin concerto and the Prokofiev sonata in F minor for violin and piano. And we also had to learn a piece by a Japanese composer named Kenji Sakai, a short concerto for violin that he wrote for the violin and symphony orchestra.
“You basically spend about an hour and 40 minutes performing on stage without a break which is basically something that never happens since during concerts because there is always a break. Here you have to do it all in one take and I found that extremely challenging and quite stressful.”
You play an instrument that was designed by a violin maker a few years ago...
“Well it wasn’t really a few years ago!” (burst of laughter)
... I am purposely being cheeky: 1855, I believe, is when it was made.
“Yes 1855. I love this instrument. The interesting thing about it is that it is a copy of a Guarneri del Gesu and as we know Gaureni’s violins, just like Stradivari’s, go for at least one million dollars and higher. And this is a direct copy of one of his instruments and I think it sounds the same!”
And the violin maker’s name was?
He was well-known for his copies, right?
“He was. He had a huge shop in Paris with a lot of workers and he was very prolific. He produced around 3,000 instruments, which was too many for a single person so of course. Many must have been made by his co-workers. Many times he would only do the varnish or the scroll or certain parts. But having that name on the violin gives it value.”
What are some characteristics of that instrument?
“It has great depth and it is actually a little more French-sounding in the sense that the tone is not so sweet but rather big and majestic.”
When you saw it did you reserve it right away?
“It took me only three minutes of playing to convince me I had to have it, whatever the cost. I reserved it and it took me about five months to figure out how to fund it. So here I am with about ten years of loans ahead of me!” (laughs)
The Prague Spring festival is just around the corner and you will be performing on May 15. What is in the programme?
“The programme is rather diverse, from the Baroque to the present. Among the pieces I will be performing are works by Bach: Chaconne in D minor, Mozart: Sonata in E minor, Sergei Prokofiev: Solo Violin Sonata in D major, and a contemporary and friend of mine the composer Chris Rogerson: Lullaby, so we’ll hear that and more.”
Your debut CD has also just come out: is just Prokofiev or are there other composers as well?
“There’s Prokofiev but also Janáček and Smetana. It was kind of a must to include Czech composers for my debut on the major Czech label Supraphon, so we included two often-performed pieces: Janáček’s Sonata for violin and piano and Smetana’s From the Homeland: Two Pieces for Violin and Piano.”