Forget Perlman, forget Bell, forget Jean-Luc Ponty: for my money, the best violinist I've ever seen is a diminutive gypsy from Hungary named Roby Lakatos. Born into a famous family of Romani fiddlers, Lakatos - who goes by the moniker "The Devil's Fiddler," received classical training in his youth, but has long since developed an expansive, rapid-fire technique that is all his own.
On Tuesday, Lakatos played to a near-capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall, with a set that reflected his wide-ranging musical interests, borrowing equally from the classical, folk and jazz idioms. Onstage, Lakatos proved himself to be a consummate showman, with his flowing hair, leather suit, and a rhinestone belt buckle in the shape of a "G" (for "Gypsy"?) But, when it came to playing, he was all business, alternating tempos and adding little flourishes like tremolos. At one point, he even made his violin sing like a hummingbird. It was a performance unlike anything I've ever heard.
Lakatos' backing band was filled with virtuosos from Hungary, most of whom were barely out of their teens. Pianist Frantisek Janoska (22) played jazz and riffs that sounded like Rachmaninoff cadenzas. Jeno Lisztes (22) played Cimbalom: a cousin of the hammer dulcimer that requires the player to hit a row of strings with a pair of thin mallets. Guitarist Laszlo Balogh (21) sounded like the spitting image of Django Reinhardt. Robert Fehér (21) and Lászlo Bóni (40) backed up on bass and violin, respectively.
Over the course of the evening Lakatos brought out a trio of guest musicians, each of whom added their own unique flavor to the mix. Myriam Fuks sang Yiddish songs with a larger-than-life persona. The bold and fearless Czech Iva Bittová left her violin at home, but contributed a pair of songs that left her screeching like some otherworldly banshee. And Afro-Cuban master Michel Camillo blew everyone out of the water with a set that had his hands flying off the keyboard; his duet with Lakatos was the highlight of the night.
During the encore, the entire audience started to clap in rhythm: close your eyes, and you'd think you were back in the old country. Lakatos, for his part, looked like he was just getting warmed up. Boy I would have liked to have gone to that afterparty...(More pics below.)