Tuesday, April 12, 2011


April 11

A proud father hosts his highly talented daughter.

There may be no one in Prague who knows more about violins than Jaroslav Svěcený, a proselytizer for his instrument and a player of considerable skill. His aptitude must be genetic, as he’s passed it on to his daughter Julie, a budding talent who joined him for a private performance last night at a small club near Wenceslas Square.

Svěcený has impeccable credentials. Widely regarded as a virtuoso violinist, he has performed all over the world, recorded some 40 CDs, authored a book about notable European violins and starred in innumerable television specials. He gives musical lectures on violins made by famous craftsmen, demonstrating their different styles and sounds. He is a state-certified expert who advises clients buying valuable violins as investments. And it’s a rare time of year when he isn’t organizing and starring in a music festival (his Easter festival in Smiřice begins April 16).

Yet in Prague, Svěcený probably has as many detractors as admirers. His relentless self-promotion doesn’t sit well in a former communist country where ambition is still a foreign concept. Then there’s his tendency to popularize classical music with projects like Vivaldianno, an updating of The Four Seasons done in collaboration with Czech rock star Michal Dvořák. Svěcený maintains that such gimmicks are necessary to attract younger audiences to the concert halls; classical purists are horrified. The resentment runs so deep that there’s even a parody of Svěcený’s impassioned playing style posted on You Tube.

It was fascinating to see that style close-up at Violino, a small club that hosted big jazz names when it was AghaRTA (which relocated to Old Town). Now a private space used mostly for invitation-only affairs, it was filled last night with fans who appreciate an approach that doesn’t change, whether Svěcený is in a large concert hall or a cramped basement space: intense, emotional, propelled by a lot of body language and swooning stretches of eyes-closed, energetic bow work.

Accompanied by pianist Václav Mácha, Svěcený opened with a Beethoven sonata that started slow, then jelled into an uptempo interplay, with Mácha laying a solid foundation for some fine, even delicate work on the strings. Svěcený then brought his daughter onstage and mentioned that she had just turned 17 before retreating to the back row to watch, like any anxious parent, as she and Mácha played Sarasate’s Romanza Andaluza and a Brahms scherzo.

Julie plays with the same passion as her father, though in a less dramatic style, and with a young woman’s charm. She has a clear, strong voice that sounds remarkably mature, and the poise of a performer twice her age. After a rich, confident reading of the Sarasate, she zipped through a proficient rundown of the Brahms.

Svěcený opened the second half accompanied by his daughter on Charles-Auguste de Bériot’s 3 Duos Concertante, then took a few minutes to introduce the instruments – a standard part of his act. He was playing two violins from his collection, one made by Stefano Scarampella (Italy, early 20th century) and the other by Giuseppe Fiorini (Italy, Germany and Switzerland, late 19th and early 20th centuries). Julie’s violin was made by one of Fiorini’s apprentices. Each had its own character and tone, qualities difficult to appreciate in a concert hall, but on vivid display in a small setting.
Mácha returned to join the two violinists for three lively and colorful Piazzolla pieces that sounded more like 19th-century Europe than 20th-century Argentina. But no complaints – Piazzolla doesn’t get played nearly often enough in Prague, and is always good to hear, with portamento or without. And it was a treat to hear the trio close with Shostakovich, a difficult composer for many listeners. “Shostakovich isn’t so bad,” Svěcený assured the audience before launching into a brisk five-piece set that concluded with a rousing polka.

Engaging music, a bit of erudition and promising young talent – what’s not to like? The detractors may turn up their noses, but this reviewer will take a night like that anytime.

For more on Jaroslav Svěcený: http://www.sveceny.cz/cv.html

For details on the Smiřice Easter festival: http://www.festival.smirice.cz/

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