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Review by Jeff and Laurie Mitchell
Toronto ON April 6 2019
Koerner Hall’s 10th Anniversary season, sponsored by BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, continued a series of concerts that explore Roma culture by featuring the modern-day Paganini of the violin, Roby Lakatos. The near-capacity audience was treated to a jaw-dropping display of virtuoso violin playing over two hours by the “devil’s fiddler” from Hungary and his 5-piece band, which included the equally stunning cimbalom virtuoso Jenó Lisztes, along with the immense talents of pianist Szakcsi Lakatos, guitarist László Balogh, bassist Vilmos Csikos and 2nd violinist László Boni. Fittingly, for an all Hungarian band, the concert was also sponsored by Kensington Market clothier Tom Mihalik of Tom’s Place.
Roby Lakatos is certainly a man of the people – I can’t ever recall a concert where the star attraction could be found hanging outside the venue 10 minutes before show time, mingling with patrons as they arrived, making casual conversation and posing for selfies.
Roby Lakatos – Roma Violin Virtuoso
Roby Lakatos; Photo credit: St.Prex Classics
There was nothing self-conscious about it – he just feels at ease with people, and he carries that feeling onto the stage with him, where he strolls easily around the stage while effortlessly playing the most incredibly fast and technically astounding licks on his violin one moment and wrenchingly beautiful gypsy folk melodies the next. The programme notes say that Lakotos is “hard to define”, primarily because there is no one type of music that labels him – he is “equally adept at performing classical music, jazz, and the folk idioms and gypsy dances of his native Hungary”, usually all within a single set-piece.
Most of the lengthy pieces were not named, but a few were familiar, such as a marvelous “Fiddler on the Roof” medley, a rendition of “Those Were the Days” and an electrifying performance of Monti’s “Csárdás”. Roby's fingering and bowing is off-the-charts technically, intricate, full of surprise, alternatingly explosive and restrained. When he plays at warp speed, which is often, it is not hard to understand why he is universally regarded as one of the great technical violinists of our time. Yet, he also uses his bow like a paint brush to create hauntingly passionate melodic lines that are enhanced by his beautiful controlled vibrato. In “Csárdás”, he improvised his own harmonics to accompany the written harmonics to stunning effect along with 2nd violinist Boni, and in numerous other pieces he displayed dazzling two-fingered pizzicato tremolo combined with left hand pizzicato, while still holding his bow. With the aid of amplification, this might have been the most entertaining pizzicato playing one could ever expect to hear.
It would be difficult for any of the supporting cast to eclipse the violin master, but with a warning from Lakotos to the audience to “fasten your seatbelts”, cimbalom virtuoso Jenó Lisztes gave it his best shot with a remarkable solo performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. The cimbalom is an “elaborate Eastern European stringed instrument played with special mallets”. The sound is unique and mesmerizing, like a harp and marimba blended together, and the speed of Lisztes’ playing was like the whir of a bumble bee’s wings; it was incredible, and brought the audience to its feet well before the concert’s final ovation.
This was Lakotos’ third appearance at Koerner Hall since he first appeared there in the Hall’s inaugural year of 2010, and one hopes that he will be back soon. Throughout the evening there were periodic hints of the “hot house” jazz of the Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, mixed in liberally with the tumultuous gypsy dances that had the audience clapping along enthusiastically on many occasions. It would be a special treat to hear Lakotos in a pure jazz setting someday. We had a chance to speak with Canada’s finest jazz pianist, Roby Botos, after the concert, and Botos suggested that a collaboration with his countryman was long overdue. Let’s hope that happens soon. In the meantime, the Roma exploration will reach its summit on May 4th when Botos himself performs at Koerner Hall. Those Roma musicians can sure play!
Roby Lakatos and Laurie Mitchell