Czech violinist Josef Špaček eager to perform a concerto with historic ties to the CSO

While many touring classical artists pursue a solo career from the time they are students, some switch to such a path after performing at first in a major symphony orchestra. One of the most famous examples is renowned flutist James Galway, who served as principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic for six years before striking out on his own in 1975. 

One of the latest musicians to change career trajectories is Czech violinist Josef Špaček, who became concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic after graduating from New York’s Juilliard School in 2011. He remained in the post through 2020, also gaining the title of associate artist along the way. 

He will make his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra March 14-16 with a fellow Czech as guest conductor — Jakub Hrůša, music director designate of the Royal Opera in London. “I’ve known Jakub for years,” Špaček said. “I know his family, and he knows my family, so it’s a long-standing friendship.” 

The 38-year-violinist will join the orchestra for Bohuslav Martinů’s once-lost Violin Concerto No. 1 (1932-33), which the CSO premiered in October 1973 under the baton of its then-music director Sir Georg Solti. Špaček had planned to offer the work as a possible concerto for the program, but he became even more excited about the possibility when he realized the performances would come just months after the 50th anniversary of the work’s debut. These upcoming presentations of the concerto will be the CSO’s first since that belated premiere. 

Martinů (1890-1959) was living in Paris when he wrote this piece for violin virtuoso Samuel Dushkin, but it was never performed during the Czech composer’s lifetime. According to the website of the concerto’s publisher, Bärenreiter, the piece came to light when noted musicologist and collector Hans Moldenhauer bought the manuscript from Boaz Piller, contrabassoonist of the Boston Symphony, in 1961.  

“It was Dr. Moldenhauer who suggested to Josef Suk the idea of presenting the premiere performances in Chicago, to be followed shortly afterward with performances in Prague,” wrote Arrand Parsons in his program notes for the 1973 premiere. “The Northwestern University Library [which houses a portion of the Moldenhauer Archives] made the score available to Sir Georg Solti, who was happy to program the premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” 

According to Špaček, it is clear from such features as its abundant double and triple stops that that Martinů intended to create a highly virtuosic concerto. “Martinů wrote so many pieces,” the violinist said. “He was a very prolific composer, and I’ve played quite a bit of his repertoire, but I think this one is by far the most technically challenging piece and physically most demanding, although it’s not a very long concerto.” Although the work draws on Czech folk music, the violinist said, there is never a complete through melody like one might find in a work by Antonín Dvořák, a well-known earlier Czech composer. Instead, Martinů sneaks in dissonances and what the violinist called “rhythmic distortions.”  

“Martinů wrote so many pieces,” the violinist said. “He was a very prolific composer, and I’ve played quite a bit of his repertoire, but I think this one is by far the most technically challenging piece and physically most demanding...” 

Špaček knows the composer’s work well. His most recent recording on the Supraphon label, released in September, includes Martinů’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra and Violin Sonata No. 3. His next release, scheduled to come out in 2025, will feature the composer’s First and Second Violin Concertos. Both recordings feature the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor and artistic director, Petr Popelka. The Czech maestro will make his CSO debut March 1 and 2 when he substitutes for Herbert Blomstedt, who is recovering from a fall and had to withdraw from his scheduled appearances. 

Špaček was born in 1986 in Czechoslovakia, the son of a prominent violinist in the Czech Philharmonic. He began violin lessons at age 3, and his affinity for the instrument soon became apparent. When he was 13, he ventured to the Unites States to spend a summer at the Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, New York, an experience that whetted his appetite for further studies in the United States. 

In 2004, he began pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, studying with two well-known violinists, Ida Kavafian and Jaime Laredo. In 2009-11, he earned his master’s degree at the Juilliard School with an even more famed violinist, Itzhak Perlman, as his guide. “I was very lucky and very happy to go through so many great mentors and pedagogues with different opinions and different backgrounds,” he said of all his teachers. “It was very formative for me.”  

During his last year at Juilliard, a concertmaster position opened at the Czech Philharmonic, and Špaček jumped at the chance to audition. “For me, it was kind of like going back home,” he said. “I took the audition, and I won the position.” 

Even though he pursued such an orchestral position, it was clear already that his sights were set on a solo career. He took part in a handful of competitions, becoming a finalist, for example, at the International Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2012. In addition, he made several early recordings, including his inaugural release in 2006, which featured the sonatas of famed Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. 

And Špaček points out that even when he was playing in the orchestra, he carved out plenty of time for solo engagements. Following the European system, the Czech Phillharmonic has several players who carry the title of concertmaster, so he always shared those duties. “I ended up playing 10-11 weeks every year,” he said. “The rest, since the very beginning, I was quite focused on a solo career. So, for me to leave the orchestra, it was always the plan. It was more a question of when I would do the switch.” 

What finally prompted the career change was his wife having twins — the couple’s second and third children. “I decided I needed to drop something and the orchestra was the obvious choice,” he said. “So, that’s how it came about.” Unfortunately, he left after the 2019-20 season, which meant that his start as a full-time soloist ran right into the COVID-19 shutdown. “It was a tough time,” he said, “and I could have reconsidered my decision, but I was so determined that I stuck to it, and I’m happy that I did.”