Josef Spacek: the Czech violinist
Just last April, on the Supraphone label Czech violinist, Joseph Spacek, released a recording of three significant Czech Concertos by composers Suk, Janacek and Dvorak.
“Suk and Janacek are not played very much anymore," Spacek said. "Their works are practically unknown today. At one time Suk's Fantasy was played quite often. Now it is nearly forgotten. It’s a great piece, truly phenomenal! I think it sounds even better on a recording than in a concert hall because an orchestra is rather heavy and can overwhelm the piece. In recording, the microphone actually enhances the effect because you can hear the violin pretty much the whole time. The Janacek Concerto is only now acquiring some recognition, but even so there are still less than 10 recordings of it. This is one reason why I wanted to record these pieces: in order to revive them a little bit again.”
Czech music originates from traditional folk tunes which is pretty much the case for all European music. Smetana is considered the father of authentic Czech classical music. He thoroughly assimilated the country's popular melodies and in so doing forged a specific musical language, which expresses the very soul and sensibility of the Czech people. He had a profound influence on Dvorak, who himself became a brilliant representative of this school. Likewise Dvorak strove to improve and expand Smetana’s ideology. In a similar way Janacek was also a master of Smetana's point of view translating the work of his predecessors in the late romantic period.
There is a special dimension of Czech music and musicians, one which is practical and warm-hearted at the same time. Indeed, to me, Czechs always seem to be very involved in music. I am taken by their music; in fact, driven by it. There is no reset; it just goes with the flow. “I think Czech musicians are quite direct. They just take things very literally. One of my teachers back at the Prague conservatory believed that all violin playing came from the Czech School starting with Ferdinand Laub and Sevcik. The Czech Violin School is one of the most important ones still shaping how we play today. Instructors developed a set of exercises and books, with methods of how to train young violinists and how to perfect their technique. They were very methodical in their approach. Their goal was to teach how to learn the instrument, which was crucial in bringing the music to the masses.”
Spacek was a student both at the Curtis Institute of Music and at the Juilliard School. He has also studied and performed both in Europe and America. Our discussion of the differences of the music scenes of the two continents was most intriguing. Surprisingly, when compared to Europe the United States actually constitutes a very small market for classical music. When you look at Europe every city has an orchestra, sometimes many. Prague is a good example. A city with a population of 1.2 million, it has four symphony orchestras.
However, at the level of music making the two continents are pretty similar because the teachers both in the America and Europe are all well traveled. For Spacek, the big difference between the two was their schools. “In Europe you have good schools as well but you don’t have the elite schools like Curtis. There it’s so hard to get accepted that when you actually get in you find all your classmates are super star soloists and virtuosos. The one great thing about American elite schools is that while you learn with your teachers you learn almost as much from your classmates. Whereas in Europe you have phenomenal teachers as well, schools there are concentrated and quite small.”
Of course every teacher has their own way of teaching and their particular style. So students often mirror those same ways and styles. But because the US is such a big melting pot the cultural origins of your identity, whatever country you come from, can get a little lost. “Whereas if you look at the Prague Conservatory for example where most of the students are Czech and most teachers are Czech as well, there is really an innate culture of how to perform Dvorak or Janacek. That's just the way it is : it’s passed on from generation to generation. I would say that this is one of the main differences. However, when all is said and done, you know playing a tune is the same everywhere.”
At the moment Spacek is reducing his commitment with the Czech Philharmonic of which he has been the concertmaster since 2010. For next season he will be at about half time. His goal is to stay connected with the orchestra while also focusing a lot on his solo career. “The Czech Philharmonic has been a great help with that. My last CD in April was recorded with them and Maestro Belohlavek. I have played a number of solo concerts as well as doing some tours with the orchestra as a soloist. So it has been a great support. I don’t think any other orchestra anywhere else could have supported their concertmaster as much as I have been. I am very spoiled.”
“When you get a job as a concertmaster you can’t move any further within the orchestra,” explains Spacek. “You can switch orchestras but the Czech Philharmonic is one of the best in the world. It’s a marvelous orchestra. I love playing with them but there is no way of moving on. Your career is complete unless you become a conductor. But then again, there is so much more room to develop in a solo career. If you have the time and good support from people, then why not give it a try? It's time for me to risk it.”
The violinist stresses that he really enjoys playing with the orchestra and working with his section. But still if he were to choose his perfect life, he would attempt something that would be more independent at the artistic decision making level. “If you are a concertmaster you always have to follow the conductor, do whatever the conductor says. Naturally you have your own voice as well but it’s much diminished as opposed to leading something by yourself.”
Spacek considers himself a more all around player than as a specialist of any particular composer or period. “But it’s hard to say because in a few years I may be leaning toward some period. Maybe I will be the Czech violin repertoire expert, who knows? For now there is an enormous amount of Czech repertoire that is not played abroad and I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring it to the audience. It’s important that these works are heard. There is a lot of Czech music that is great but needs to be constantly re- introduced in order to remind the public of its great beauty."
The Czech violinist thinks it will be interesting to see how music develops in the next few years, in a decade. “I like that people today try to play in the style of what we think was the correct way of playing the classical period, romantic, baroque. It’s kind of fun you can switch styles and that is how you should your versatility. Also, there are always new things going on these days. People are trying to be more interesting for the audiences whether it involves more visuals or different repertoires or the use of instruments that people have never seen before. I think it’s good to experiment. What if we find a great way for classical to make come back. What if it starts attract young people again.”
Published on Violinist.com on June 2015: