Roby Lakatos Quintet
Ottawa Chamberfest (Chamberfringe)
École secondaire publique De La Salle
Friday, July 27, 2018 – 10:50 p.m.
Roby Lakatos is a Romani virtuoso violinist from Hungary, a 7th-generation direct descendant of legendary Hungarian gypsy violinist Janos Bihari (1764-1827). At Chamberfest on Friday evening, he displayed the energy and passion of that heritage in a flamboyant and audience-pleasing concert.
If there was a market in sixty-fourth notes, Lakatos and his quintet would have cornered it at this concert. Right from his first number – from La Passion , a live album recorded at the Sydney Opera House – his violin playing was fast and virtuosic, attention-grabbing and electrifying, a fine thread of sound physically spinning across the stage.
His other musicians – guitarist Laszlo Balogh, bassist Vilmos Csikos, pianist Kálmán Czéki, and percussionist Jeno Istvan Lisztes – followed his lead with similar dramatic performances. The music changed its pace, style, and feel several times during the extended first piece, from classical to almost bebop, with each musician adding an extra push and further exploration.
This late-evening concert was Lakatos' second at the 2018 Chamberfest – and, unlike the first, he didn't have to rush directly on-stage from a delayed air flight. The musicians were all relaxed and energetic, often smiling at each other.
Lakatos frequently strode across the stage to play more closely with this or that musician. Throughout, the instruments overlaid each other and intertwined: inflected guitar or ragtime piano or thundering bowed bass contrasting with Lakatos' expressive violin.
I particularly enjoyed listening to Lisztes, who alternated between a single snare drum, and the Eastern European instrument called the cimbalom. It's a large wooden box on legs with metallic strings stretched across it, on one side steel treble strings, and on the other bass strings over-spun with copper. Its sound is rather like a cross between a hammered dulcimer and a marimba, and Lisztes played it with two soft mallets.
Lisztes' mallets danced all over the cimbalom's strings. He took the lead in one piece, first letting the instrument define the ballad through long held notes, going from very high treble pitches to deep bass – and then, supported by piano, guitar, and bass, driving the tune faster and faster, playing both a soaring treble and a grounded bass line. His last light note ending that piece was greeted with cheers and strong applause from the audience.
While this concert was billed as “a homage to jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli”, I didn't recognize their signature tunes in the show (exacerbated by the fact that Lakatos only announced the first two song titles). The second piece, “Nuits De Saint-Germain-des-Prés” was by Reinhardt, and Lakatos gave it an assured and almost carefree interpretation – opening with beautiful, melancholy melody on piano and violin, and then transforming to a joyful and swift ensemble piece.
But the hallmarks of jazz manouche/gypsy jazz were there in the performance: in the choice of instruments, the tight ensemble playing, the improvisation and the technical virtuosity in the solos by each of the musicians, the intense driving rhythms, and a definite swing. It was appealing music that carried the audience along – and they enthusiastically responded throughout.
The group’s closing number opened with speedy violin – almost fiddle-style – over cimbalom, became an upbeat ensemble piece, then quietened to slow circling violin over bass and snare drum. Lakatos introduced the musicians, and many in the audience stood for a standing ovation. But the ensemble wasn't finished yet – the music jumped up again, with Lakatos ornamenting his playing with tiny pizzicato notes streaming out of his violin, and quiet treble bowing that trilled like birdsong. The music became wilder and wilder before ending in an extended flourish – and a full and well-deserved standing ovation.
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