The devil wears a handlebar mustache
Gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos to perform during Ventura Music Festival
By Benjamin Pearson 04/28/2011
Scientists haven’t discovered a gene that produces violin prodigies, but anyone familiar with fifth-generation violinist Roby Lakatos might have wondered if such a thing exists. The acclaimed virtuoso first performed in public at the young age of 9, but his family has been playing the fiddle in the scorching Hungarian Romani (or Gypsy) tradition as far back as the 18th century.
That family tree includes the influential János Bihari, the “grandfather” of Romani violinists, whose melodies were appropriated by such well-known composers as Franz Liszt and Beethoven. For centuries, Romani and classical music have influenced each other, as Romani violinists performed their fiery, expressive takes on classical pieces while composers incorporated Romani elements into their compositions. As part of this year’s Ventura Music Festival, Lakatos and his ensemble of Hungarian musicians will give Ventura a glimpse of that traditional synergy combined with a signature modern flair.
Roby Lakatos was born in Hungary in 1965. After studying both with his family and at the Béla Bartók Conservatory in Budapest, he created an ensemble that played at a club in Brussels for 10 years. Since then, Lakatos has taken the Romani tradition of traveling seriously, playing all over Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States. Lakatos plays with uncommon technical prowess, speed and passion — all part of the Gypsy tradition, according to Ventura Music Festival Artistic Director, Nuvi Mehta, who says that Lakatos does “things that classical artists can’t do.” That might be one reason Lakatos has been dubbed the “devil fiddler.”
Like the namesake, he’s also an impressive shape-changer whose repertoire extends far beyond traditional Hungarian czardas (perhaps the definitive Romani music to most audiences) and classical. His Ventura program includes everything from jazz icon Fats Waller to Argentine tango composer Ástor Piazolla, alongside a healthy dose of Hungarian Romani music by József Suha Balogh and Lakatos’ own compositions. Film buffs can also look forward to renditions of Michel LeGrand’s Academy award-nominated “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and a piece by Ennio Morricone, known for his scores to spaghetti westerns.
Whatever the genre, a Lakatos’ performance is sure to give it a Romani spin. In his ensemble, he’s assembled a group of like-minded Hungarian musicians who can similarly interpret diverse styles through a Romani lens. They can also all hold their own against Lakatos’ often-furious pace. Jenő Lisztes, who plays the hammered dulcimer-style instrument called the cimbalom that’s characteristic of Romani music, is especially known for his speed — his frantic hammer strokes are as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.
Mehta thinks the ensemble’s performance promises to be one of the most interesting shows of the festival. That’s saying a lot for a schedule that includes the U.S. premiere of a recently-discovered Mendelssohn piano concerto. But like Lakatos’ carefully waxed and curled moustache, the concert is sure to seamlessly blend precision and showmanship, tradition and personality.
The Roby Lakatos Ensemble will perform on Saturday, May 7, 8 p.m. at Ventura High School Auditorium, 2 N. Catalina, Ventura. Tickets are $15-$45. For more information about the Ventura Music Festival, visit www.venturamusicfestival.org.