Wednesday 1 April 2015

Josef Spacek - talking to the Czech Philharmonic's concert master about their latest tour

Czech Philharmonic © Martin Kabát
Czech Philharmonic © Martin Kabát
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is coming on tour to the UK in April 2015, conducted by its chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. The orchestra will be performing in Leeds, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Bristol, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Saffron Walden. The focus of the concerts will be the music of Janáček, Smetana and Dvořák, with concertos by Mendelssohn and Bruch played by Josef Špaček. Josef Špaček is also the orchestra's concert master, though for this tour he is playing solos, as he combines being the orchestra's concert master with a solo career, and his first solo disc with the orchestra (of concertante works by Janáček, Dvořák and Suk) will be out in April. I spoke to Josef on the telephone to Prague, in advance of the tour to get some background.  Still under 30, Josef trained in the USA (at the Curtis and Julliard) before becoming the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's youngest ever concert master.  

Josef Špaček - photo credit Radovan Subin
Josef Špaček
photo credit Radovan Subin
Josef and the orchestra were on tour to the USA in November 2014, and are shortly due to go to Vienna for a short residency, before concerts in Poland and then the seven concerts in the UK. I comment that this seems a lot of touring, and Josef admits that they do quite a lot of tours (five or six per year), but that it is part of orchestral life and whilst some in the orchestra enjoy it, others would prefer to stay in Prague. But touring is part of the orchestra's philosophy, as they present Czech music to international audiences. This is especially true as their repertoire on tour usually concentrates on Czech music (partly because this is what concert promoters ask them to perform).

But in Prague, where the orchestra does a regular concert series at the Rudolfinum, they play the whole spectrum of orchestral music though Josef says that the audience is somewhat more conservative, though they do try and programme more modern pieces too.

When I ask where it is not too demanding to combine being a concert master of such a busy orchestra with a solo career, Josef says that it is very demanding but that he feels he is at the time of life when he can rise to such challenges, though on the tour to Vienna, Poland and the UK he will have no concert master duties as he is the soloist in the concerts.

The Rudolfinum in Prague
The Rudolfinum,
which is the orchestra's home in Prague
I am also curious about the orchestra's sound, because the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra used to be famous for its very particular, very Czech sound. Josef feels that the orchestra is preserving this, that the strings still have a particular sound which he characterises as warm and somewhat rustic, with much Czech music being based on folk-tunes. He points out that all the string player come from the same background, and culture so have a very unified way of playing.

His time at the Curtis Institute opened his eyes more to a wider culture and broadened his horizons. He feels that the best part of his training in the USA was that he now thinks and feels differently. He came back to the Czech Republic to join the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 24. When I comment on his youth he says that nowadays this is far less of a surprise and that other colleagues from his Curtis Institute days went on to join orchestras. He had a lot of orchestral training and was concert master of both the Curtis and Juilliard orchestras. Also, when he became concert master of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra his father was playing in the cello section which helped a lot.

The orchestra's recording of the complete symphonies and concertos by Dvořák goes on international release in April at the same time as their UK tour. Also in April, Josef Špaček's Janáček, Dvořák and Suk disc is released on Supraphon. When I ask if he worries about recording such repertoire when the orchestra has recorded it all, often under very distinguished conductors, Josef says that we are living in an age when everything has been recorded. It makes it difficult to record things again, but the musicians must work to make it different and special, and make the recording something which will last.

The orchestra's tour opens on 18 April 2015 at Leeds Town Hall with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the orchestra in Dvořák's Seventh Symphony, plus some Slavonic Dances. Josef Špaček is the soloist in Bruch's violin concerto and RVW's The Lark Ascending. The tour then takes in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (19 April 2015), Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (21 April 2015), Colston Hall, Bristol (22 April 2015), The Anvil, Basingstoke (23 April 2015), Symphony Hall, Birmingham (24 April 2015) and Saffron Hall (25 April 2015). In addition to the Dvořák symphony they will be performing Mahler's Second symphony in Birmingham, and Josef Špaček will also be playing Mendelssohn's violin concerto.
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