Violinist Josef Špaček: Concert Master, Soloist, Dramaturge, Pedagogue and Father

Josef Špaček jr., concert master of the Czech Philharmonic: no need for further introduction. This young, charming violinist has, in his not-quite-decade-long career, earned admiration both home and abroad. Besides his career as a violinist, he has also become the artistic director of the Lípa Musica festival and we may even catch him on occasion teaching. He answers questions about what he likes about his various functions, and what bearing such a rich professional life has on fatherhood, with lighthearted remove. We began this interview, however, with this summer’s big news: his planned retirement from the Czech Philharmonic. 

Josef Špaček (source: Classical Movements)

What was the reason behind your decision to make this season with the Czech Philharmonic your last? 

There are, of course, multiple reasons and it certainly isn’t because I wouldn’t be happy there. On the contrary. In those eight years (I’m going into my ninth season) I’ve developed a close emotional relationship with the Philharmonic, to the point of being able to call it a kind of second home. But even when I was starting out there, my vision was to stay for a decade at the most. It’s because playing in an orchestra really wears one out, physically. What’s more, maintaining your playing at the highest possible level takes a lot of practice and self-preparation. And when you have kids on top of that the amount of time you have begins to diminish drastically. After Elenka was born, everything was already harder, but when I found out we’re going to have twins, something matured in me and I told myself that if I want to have time for quality, not just quantity, I’ll have to make some kind of radical decision. And my vision of no more than a decade with the Philharmonic was already approaching, anyway…

So, it was a combination of factors that informed my decision to end my time at the philharmonic after my ninth season. But I have to say that I am not closing the door behind me entirely because the management of the Czech Philharmonic is planning a very circumscribed collaboration with me. For instance, we talked about my doing a few projects with them in a year or leading their chamber orchestra. I’ve also been named to the advisory board of the Czech Chamber Music Society, which now belongs under the Czech Philharmonic, so I still have one foot in the door. 

What will your function be on this advisory board? 

I imagine my role to be that of advisor and consultant. In my decade of being in this profession, I’ve collected a certain database of contacts so I think I’ll contribute to the society by recommending people we should invite from abroad.  

The fact that you decided to forgo the status of orchestra player must certainly also have something to do with the fact that you’ve started to get more solo work…

My agent and I have been systematically working on this for over seven years (since 2012) and offers are coming regularly. But now that I’ll have more time for a solo career, I hope there will be even more. I’ll probably try to replace orchestral work with solo work.  I’ll either be preparing something, practicing, or broadening my repertoire. And finding new possibilities in my playing. 

Won’t that be more difficult, though? I’d assume solo playing is more demanding than playing in an orchestra… 

I’ll have to beg to differ, there. I think it isn’t. I’m exhausted just by the fact that I have to stay sitting down when I playing in an orchestra. I just don’t like that. 

Semyon Bychkov, the Czech Philharmonic, Josef Špaček – Smetanova Litomyšl music festival 16. 6. 2017 (photo by František Renza)

So would you like orchestras to stand, then? 

I would like to stand during rehearsals (at least sometimes.) Because, since we have to share a stand between two players, we do not have the music in front of us and are constantly looking sideways. This is especially exhausting when we have so-called double rehearsals, three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. My back really does hurt after that. Whereas when I’m practicing solo pieces, this doesn’t happen because when I’m tired, I simply stop playing. But in the orchestra, I have to play, because the rehearsal isn’t until 3:30pm. 

And aren’t concerts more demanding for a soloist, at least? 

I approach solo and orchestral concerts in exactly the same way. There’s no difference for me. It’s music. It’s something which creates positive reactions in me and so I’m not capable of just sitting there in my chair and playing neutrally to myself. And even when I tell myself I’ll take it easy, for once, I can’t. I don’t know how to. 

And what about stage fright when performing as a soloist? 

I guess everyone gets stage fright. Some more, some less. For me, it’s been getting weaker. In the beginning of a career, you feel like you constantly have to prove something, which makes your stage fright stronger. But after you have children, your priorities utterly change and you feel like performing is somehow trivial, banal. 

Czech Philharmonic – Josef Špaček (photo by Petra Hajská)

That’s interesting. I’d expect something like that to happen to a woman – that giving birth changes one’s perspective, but that a man would also feel that way… 

Yes. But even so, I do still feel stage fright. Especially when it’s an important concert. But I can say that over the years I’ve learned to work with it and even control it. 

And do you have any stage-fright-worthy concerts ahead of you? Or any that you’re looking forward to? 

I have several rather big projects coming up this season. The biggest one is probably Tokyo, where I’m doing Shostakovich with the Tokyo Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra for the very first time. I’ve never played this concerto with orchestra, though I worked on it as a student. And in Europe, the most significant event will be Dvořák’s concerto with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.  

You seem like a very active person – besides your orchestral, chamber, and solo concerts you also function as artistic director of the Lípa Musica festival, which is currently underway (we’ll get to that later), and on top of all that you are a pedagogue as well… 

Yes, that has been a reality of the last two, three years. I eventually started being invited to give various masterclasses and I came to like it and so I began teaching at the International Summer Music Academy in  Kroměříš. And now Tomáš Jamník and I founded the Ševčík academy in Horažďovice and we have rather big plans with it. So, my activity as a pedagogue takes place mainly in the summer. But I got my first taste of teaching through the Philharmonic, where I was assigned young violinists from the Czech Philharmonic Academy for a few hours week. I think it’s important to pass on one’s experiences, share them with the future generation. 

How do you see yourself as a teacher? It’s often the case that excellent players are not the best teachers, and vice versa. 

Yes, exactly, you’re right. It’s like in football – not every trainer can kick a ball, while another may have been a top athlete… I think I’d have a problem teaching children who still need a lot of advice concerning development and holding the instrument. I’m not much of a methodologist. I mainly enjoy sharing my stage experiences and developing the creative part of playing, which is important with children about 16 and over, who are basically finished with their technical studies. 

Have you ever thought about teaching your own children? 

I probably wouldn’t want to do that. It’s a totally different kind of relationship – a child can’t behave towards a teacher the way it can towards a parent. I know this from experience. A teacher has to have more authority. 

How many children do you have, anyway?
I have three children. We took it by storm. I always told my parents they were totally crazy to have the three of us first kids one right after the other. My sister is a year older, and my brother is a year and four months younger than I. I didn’t understand how they could have survived it. So, with Elenka, we waited two years to get her a sibling, to give her some space. And we accidently got her two at once. 

How can you combine this family with work?
I have to say, I have excellent help, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to manage. We’ve even gotten a nanny. In the evening, we’re together. This is a problem, too, though because I often have concerts, and when I do someone from the family helps out. You really do need two adults to manage three children, because of the boys – they each crawl in the opposite direction… 

How does the family cope when you leave on longer trips? 

It’s very difficult, especially with logistics, which are mainly managed by my wife. When I have a longer tour (14 days, say) we always call the mother-in-law in America. She flies in and remains while I’m gone. Unlike my own parents, she’s retired, so she usually has time when we need. 

Does your family ever travel with you? 

The kids are still too little for that. Just going on a walk with all of them at once requires forty minutes of preparation. 

Given your workload, do you consider time spent with your family a kind of relaxation? 

It really isn’t relaxing. When I’m on tour – that’s relaxing. Unless I’m going into a different time zone. When you’re touring Asia, the travel itself exhausts you and it takes three, four days to start functioning again. So I try to maximize tours by catching up on sleep. But then again – all my colleagues say “Come have a drink with us!” So I always have to balance it somehow, so that I don’t come home even more exhausted than I left.  

We’ve already touched on the Lípa Musica festival, of which you are the artistic director. What compelled you to accept this position?  

I mainly enjoy the idea of introducing the Czech public to people that don’t play here that often. The biggest commercial stars do come to Prague, but players that are in the “A-league” but do not have international renown don’t play here much. Many of them will play in the Czech Republic for the first time thanks to this festival. 

You were able to influence the dramaturgy as well. How did you choose the repertoire and the artists? 

We try to choose artists that live in the Central European region. And because it’s a festival on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, we are very close to Berlin, which is basically a mecca of European music. I have a lot of friends there who are excellent musicians, so for example the sextet I put together for the festival partially consists of players from Berlin: violinist Tobias Feldman and cellists Tomáš Jamník and  Julian Steckel. The violist Sergej Malov is from Russia, but he now lives between Zürick and Germany and Máté Szücs is currently at home in Hungary, so we were able to fulfill our goal of using Central European colleagues. I also tapped the Janoska Ensemble. A violinist from that ensemble, Ondrej, and I attended the Kocián violin competition together when we were around seven or eight. We haven’t seen each other since, but we’ve known of each other. 

Josef Špaček – Czech Philharmonic – Prague, 27.1.2016 (photo by Petra Hajská)

The festival will include a concert called Špačci ve fraku (Starlings in Frocks – a play on the family name.) How often does it happen that your family plays together like this? Is it the entire family? Perhaps besides your mother… 

And my older sister doesn’t play with us either. But she usually does attend because our mom reads excerpts from her book series Starlings in Frocks, of which she’s already written four volumes. But we only do these concerts once, twice a year because it’s difficult to find the time. Like when we were negotiating the rehearsals for this concert – that was a long correspondence and we never really got anywhere, actually, because someone was always busy. 

So, besides your older sister, you are all professional musicians? 

Not all of us. It’s just me, my younger brother, and dad. My younger sister, who plays flute very well, has just finished her studies of medicine and is looking to work at a hospital. My youngest brother is only seventeen and though he plays the violin and the piano pretty well, he’s more of the academic type. 

And how does it work at these “family” concerts, then? You’re probably not all playing at once… 

No, we aren’t. Given the instruments involved (two violins, two cellos, a flute and piano) our repertoire is quite limited. So we either rewrite things or we create various duets and smaller ensembles. So we play Mozart’s quartet, for example, with one of the cellos playing the viola part. And we’ll be doing something similar with Beethoven’s quintet this time. 

Thank you for the interview and we look forward to seeing you, and the other Špaček family members, in frocks on September 30th, 2019, in Teplice! 

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