Interview with the pianist Milivoje Veljic

Posted on 17 November 2019   News

Milivoje Veljic, the pianist of Borzoi Ballade

Today I have the pleasure to introduce to you a young pianist with whom I collaborated on a new WebMetropolis Records project, which is not only beautiful but also extremely interesting for many reasons. First of all, welcome to WebMetropolis Milivoje.

Tell me how someone so young can be a college professor? Pure curiosity, of course.

First of all, thank you for your invitation and a warm welcome! Professional experience, not the age, is crucial to engaging in college, and in this field I may not be that young – the fact is that I have been dedicated to music and playing the piano constantly for the past twenty-five years, it is a quarter of a century.

Still, I find myself particularly privileged to have been given the opportunity to work in higher education with our country’s greatest talents. I was fortunate to have had wonderful opportunities during the crucial years of my musical development, in which as a musician I matured, formed and became independent. Of course this is a direct consequence of my commitment and that nothing came by accident or undeserved.

However, while it has my merits, I cannot but mention that the greater merits of those who have given me this opportunity have shown me their confidence. For this I will always be grateful to my colleagues from the faculty, and especially to Professor Kitanovski. I am blessed to do the work from which, most often, I come home singing.

How did you get to choose the piano?

It was an unusual circumstance. One day a piano tuner technician came to our house to service my sister’s piano, she is also a pianist. I was fascinated boy by his unusual and neatly stacked tool in a suitcase that I couldn’t detach.

I immediately wished to become a piano tuner technician and we had already agreed to be his student. But, he explained to me, in order to become a piano technician, I needed to know how to play the piano beforehand, which meant I had to go to music school.

Well, that was my first motive. Even the two of us made it to television, an episode of the old craft show was dedicated to me, and I was featured in it as his successor.

Felling in love with piano

However, soon at music school I got to play pieces that I fell in love with, and with that came the first pianist successes. Somehow it naturally suggested that I should continue and that playing the piano would be my call, so I can answer your question by saying that the piano chose me, not the other way around. Although, in high school, I made one decision that was just mine, which would turn out to be important and, perhaps, definitive.

I was going through a crisis period and thought of quitting, but I was always “in good hands” even then – my piano teacher was an excellent educator and pedagog and she made a masterful situation. She made me think carefully, find new motivation and, it would turn out, make a life decision. She finally paved the way for me, and we passed the first and important stages on it together.

How profitable is your profession today? What makes you so passionate about music as much as everyday work? Where do you get your motivation from?

Unfortunately, although we have the rare honor and privilege of being contemporaries of several bravourous pianists who have raised the art of piano to one historically higher level, the golden age of pianism has passed, in terms of its social importance, popularity, and therefore “profitability”.

I can’t imagine how to change that in a time where popular, most often “reality” culture is editing mass media programs. Let’s understand that some of the world’s most famous pianist names will still be wealthy in our time. But globally, pianism today survives in small oases, most commonly associated with music academies, schools, festivals and competitions.

Every day an increasing number of extremely talented artists are forced to give up art, quality music and even pedagogy and, regardless of their higher education, find alternative sources of funding. It is a crime of the modern age towards a quality individual who is not enabled to do what he can best do and what he was eventually educated for. In such circumstances, it is clear that I can be overjoyed to be able to fully maintain from my profession alone. But this is not the only or the most important motive for which I am dedicated to my vocation. It is a happy and fulfilling life, but in a material sense it is modest.

If material was the only thing that mattered to me, I would certainly be dealing with something else. Music and art are categories that are dramatically above these profane relationships we just mentioned, which I cannot ignore or pretend not to see. This cannot be understood by someone who has not, at least for a moment, been torched by the “holy fire” of inspiration. When, in the absolute beauty of music, that wave of inspiration carries you – you feel so alive. Maybe I’m talking about something esoteric and metaphysical right now, but believe me, I’m not trying to express myself poetically at all, anor I am even imagining, as I’m talking about this very concrete experience – an experience where as you create everything else disappears!

As you create everything else disappears

I’m glad you recognized the fervor in my day to day life, in something that, by popular belief, should become a boring routine. The passion of a performing artist should not be reserved for the podium and stage alone. On the contrary, the reproductive artist on the podium spends only a fraction of the time compared to the time spent on the aforementioned daily routine, in which he practiced independently and / or rehearse with colleagues. It is essential for this process to grow into something excitingly creative, to be played, lost during the course of it…

The instrument then becomes a medium through which you express yourself, and at the same time a polygon where you can endlessly experiment and even get to know yourself. That’s my inspiration. My prayer and meditation. So I do not regret the effort.

When we met through Marko Kalajanović, an opera singer who is also in this project, I never knew that you would embark on such a complex project without hesitation. Tell me honestly what did you think when you saw the libretto, when you read the whole story? Have you seen this approach before in artists work? I mean the presentation of the composition, the explanations, the photos that also accompanied everything?

First, in a telephone conversation, Marko asked me to study composition that was dedicated to Russian greyhound – borzoi and to give his estimate, which sounded a little silly and cute to me, so we laughed. However, it would not be the first time that the piano had put me in the position of doing something out of the ordinary, and I knew that Marko was a cruelly strict and responsible professional, so I waited for the music score.

When I opened it, I was surprised by the seriousness and complexity of the note text. It was not some kind of catchy and humorous pet song, as I first imagined it, but a formally complex work, with many motives and a duration of almost 20 minutes. For example, some concerts by Haydn, Mozart, Liszt or Ravel only last a little longer.

At first glance, it was clear that the composition was technically demanding, for both singer and pianist, that the work required a long period of preparation for performing both solo work and joint rehearsals.

The composer’s textual and pictorial introduction itself is not uncommon; very often composers like to share with these performers some of this “extra-musical” data. In this particular case, it only shortened my artistic research work. I would also draw the most important conclusions from the score itself: that the borzoi are much more than a breed of dogs, that they are the offspring of the fantastic and unrepeatable culture of Tsarist Russia and a symbol of its aristocracy, and that before my eyes lies an epic ode dedicated to precisely that culture that is, at the same time, one very lyrical and deeply intimate dedication of the composer addressed to his faithful and refined four-legged companions of life, of noble origin. Admittedly, there was also information that the artists to whom the work was dedicated were committed to premiering it, that they were demanding long deadlines for realisation, that they were changing partners – and ultimately giving up.

Borzoi as the fantastic and unrepeatable culture

There is one saying in Serbia: “Not to whom it was told, but to whom it was destined.” How did you see this composition. Give us your impressions, please.

I have seen it in many of its layers, there are quite a few. The musical language is based on the late-Romantic tradition, but it is only a base reminiscent of, say, the harmonic language of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. Through this, one can hear the echo of northern Europe in the musical phrases, the Nordic sound in the vocal section, and there are some very interesting stylised fragments in the manner of jazz playing.

Over time, I learned to recognise the original Rohan patterns, which are found in melody lines, and especially in rhythmic variations. Furthermore, the programmability of the composition is expressed – it begins with a narrative section in which the image of the landscape of Russia, represents the coexistence of people and the borzoi, and actually speaks of a cycle in which life and death alternate in a continuous march.

The encounter between these two realities is most evident in the dramatic hunting scene. Tonal painting is also present, bells of the Orthodox temples are heard from time to time, a howl of the wind, a whistle that marks the beginning of hunting, the warmth of horses and dogs, the chanting of a hunter on his way home …

I liked the verses in which the author revealed his philosophy of life. Several times the focus goes back to the victim of the hunt, in this case the wolf. These are the most moving tacts in which the sacrifice is honored by praying for her soul.

Philosophy of Life and the Soul

How and why did you have the courageous approach to say so. Someone gave up, no matter what the reason. What was difficult, or better, what was the challenge?

There were several factors that decisively influenced my determination.

First, this was an adventure I was about to embark on with Marko, my pal, colleague, my brother in music. The two of us did not cooperate very often, but in these rare situations it would, as a rule, be a special and memorable experience.

It’s just that our sensibilities and energies are so compatible that we manage to get the most out of each other. Today, in vain, I try to repeat something that long ago with Marko on the podium just “came out”.

Second, this composition is inspired by a spirituality that I consider close, familiar, deeply Orthodox.

Also, it is an honest, direct and open letter from the author, through whom I met and met some of Rohan van Klooster‘s personality traits, towards which I began to cultivate sympathy and respect.

Third, we received the best possible conditions from the project producer; we are not limited by any deadlines, burdensome requirements, during realization it was unconditionally fulfilled with all the needs that would appear in the meantime, and the contract we signed is the most professional document of this type that I have ever had the opportunity to initialize.

The technical challenges were certainly the biggest, but certainly not insurmountable. Also, they were present for a reason, justifiably, not for hollow virtuosity.

As I said, it was necessary to fully commit to the composition for a longer period of time.

The singer in the beginning has to have an extremely wide range of voice and to deal with complicated melodic patterns, while the pianist part in some parts became black from the notes that needed to be “captured” and played. But for me technically the bigger challenge was not to make mistakes in interpreting and conceptualizing the performance.

This made it easier to miss because we did not have the opportunity to hear a recording of another Rohan composition, which we would use as a role model.

It was exciting to record in Belgrade, while in the Netherlands they were watching live events from the studio. When a message of gratitude and support came from Rohan and his dear wife Ank, which was also a confirmation that we were on the right track, I felt relief and joy, because I truly care that all the project participants are satisfied with the final recording and that to the world, without any hesitation, we can introduce our joint son – Borzoi Ballade.

When did you see the score, when you sat down to dip into it, how did you organise the work? This part of the work is usually completely unknown to the audience, but it is valuable, that “first reading”, the questions that are asked, not only of a technical nature, but when the sound starts, which then takes shape, fullness and slowly life, when ask if the author thought so. Tell us a little about that journey through the notes together with Marko Kalajanović, and we will offer later on a small section of a fifteen-second rehearsal to give the audience a sense of the atmosphere.

I started working on “Ballade” daily two months before the commencement of joint rehearsals, that is, two and a half months before entering the studio. First I recorded a “sketch” of the composition on the piano, which I sent to Marko, on which I played only the vocal line with the reduced harmonic accompaniment. I then dedicated myself to the piano section.

Rohan did not write down all the determinants in the score, which he stated in his introduction, because he reckoned that the performers he intended for the piece would know exactly what to do with them. So I had to experiment and find some solutions myself.

I carried the score with me everywhere; I studied it at my home, at the Faculty or at the National Theater, in which I was engaged, whenever an intermediate space appeared in the schedule. My work at the time was mostly reduced to endless repetitions of each fragment of the composition, during which I would get to know and adopt the layers of the piano part, practicing that the music flow did not stop.

When conditions permit, I stick to the good old recommendation of the great Franz Liszt that whenever I think I am practicing slow, I slow down even more. This was now the case, I gave myself time at that stage, after which the “raising” tempo was waiting for me, which also took time given the duration of the composition.

When Marko joined me, during the first rehearsals I was a concert attendant, tasked with helping him master his section, and as we progressed in that, I spontaneously became a pianist and partner in chamber music again.

Whenever you think you are practicing slow, slow down even more

The two of us would start each rehearsal with a cup of coffee and a glass of plum brandy, always in a good mood and work until one of us stumbles without looking at the clock. At that stage, there will usually be a lot of laughter, jokes, sweat, and some cursing due to some tiny errors, but after each rehearsal, we made progress.

At some point, we were about to enter Studio R88, where Ana Maria Srejić, a sound engineer and my dear colleague, was waiting for us, in which we had the optimum conditions for an effective finish, in the spirit of barzoi.

How long it takes to prepare a piece like this and have you had similar experiences, ie. in general, what is modern music like today? Have you had the opportunity to meet other Dutch composers, I think of contemporary ones, and where could we locate Rohan, given that you had two of his compositions that you could study well?

I have considerable experience in performing works of contemporary composers, especially Serbian composers, of course, and many of them have been premiered. Modern classical music is colorful, and styles, influences and directions are mixed.

I was one of the organizers of the Belgrade premiere of the cycle “The memory of Roses” by the famous and renowned Dutch composer Louis Andrisen.

Based on two of Rohan’s compositions I have in my repertoire – “Borzoi Ballade” and “Rondo per Vita” for solo piano, but also an insight into his complete Opus (in which the parts for piano solo, as well as the chamber works for flute and piano and double bass and piano), I claim Rohan to be a quality modern creator whose works do not in any way lag behind the latest tendencies in classical music.

The Dutch music scene, especially Amsterdam as its center, is considered one of the leading cultural centers in the world, especially for contemporary music.

In that sense, I am surprised that it is possible that the Netherlands has not so far recognized in Rohan its highly representative artist, whom it should promote and support.

How did the notes and the text in the introduction, so the narration, happiness and how did you transpose it into experience and define it into one specific music track? I know it’s an ungrateful question, but today we have a completely different music and a scene where I take the liberty to say, contemporary music has a heavy burden on its back, formerly famous composers and modern day musicians who make hits with just a few authors. So a small number of people create for a large audience with a small number of artists. A bit absurd, but the scene of serious, high quality, authoring is almost marginalized. That is why this opportunity to convey this to us is valuable, to include in this production an audience that cares, who wants quality.

You are right, the scene is different and interest in contemporary music is dramatically weaker than in previous times, not to say, for centuries. In my opinion, conceptual art is to blame for this, which with its experiments infiltrated classical music and even took over.

The accomplishments of these conceptualists are rarely harmonious, melodic or harmonious, which is presented as their advantage. I’m not saying there are truly valuable works, but it still seems easier to come up with an original concept than, say, an original beautiful melody. Or, at least, that it requires talent of a different type. That is why a good number of inventive and talented contemporaries have found refuge in another field, and at the same time a very lucrative market – in film music. They demonstrate true mastery in composing music and, in particular, orchestration, which is why they are worthy heirs of Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius or Rachmaninoff, not Abramovic’s heirs.

Absolutely authentic

Rohan van Klooster does not write music with premeditation and calculating; the pounds of his libretto that I held in my hands were created over a long period of time (in the meantime mostly not performed!) out of the simple need to express himself through music. His work is therefore absolutely authentic, and I need nothing more, more avant-garde, than that.

What do you think the audience might say about this piece? Are such works present in our country and in Europe? And in your opinion, which artists are closest to Rohan’s Opus? We will be preparing another composition soon, so your picture is more complete.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only composition ever, on a global scale, dedicated to borzois. I found them in prose and poetry, but not in music. I am very curious to see how this work will be received by their owners and lovers, who have it in every corner of the planet and even saw that they have their own magazine. I believe we offered them special content.

On the other hand, I had the opportunity to probe the opinion of the rest of the public on a perhaps small, but perhaps representative enough, sample made by my fellow man. Everyone was curious to hear what I was so upset about during the Easter holidays, which made me miss trips and festive lunches.

Rondo per Vita

I let them have some parts of the recording and everyone was pleasantly surprised, the most common statements were that the work was interesting, picturesque, effective and that the energy among the musicians was felt. 

I have already mentioned that the tradition of predominantly Russian composers – Rachmaninoff, Korsakov and Mussorgsky – is heard in “Ballade”. Their influences are not noticeable, or at least not so much, in another of Rohan’s compositions that I perform, which is his latest work – “Rondo per Vita“.

Admittedly, the inspiration is different too; while “Ballade” is dedicated to the Russian borzoi, “Rondo” is dedicated to Rohan’s wife Ank, who, both by title and by reality, is his life, inspiration, greatest support and first audience. That is why in “Rondo” we have a melodiousness and sensitivity that are reminiscent of Chopin, the passionate rhythms of Spain are heard, and the tuning is reminiscent of film music.

The Future of Modern Composition. Where do you see it, or how do you see it? Do you believe that composers like Rohan van Klooster could bring a new youth to the scene, which they never left for an easier and more comfortable time, believing that this type of music will have a reunion and a new love with an audience that obviously exists, but is neglected for the sake of “fruit” which is at your fingertips and requires less effort? Namely, investing in this kind of music is a big challenge for the producers, but their mission is to reunite good composers and excellent musicians as a necessary precondition for change for the better. Culture and society, reunited through value and quality, also open up our time to being marked by unique beauty. Perhaps the biggest reward is just being part of that mission. Shall we succeed in this, dear Milivoje, what do you think?

You know, this project has already pushed the boundaries; Rohan is Dutch, your base is in Italy, a production company in Britain, Marko is a Principal opera singer in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), we registered in Belgrade (Serbia), video content is left to masters from other places…

It’s already an international story and we certainly make a modest impact on the environments in which we operate. I believe it is the mission of the artist, an activity that makes him accomplished, fulfilled and, ultimately, happy individual. I, therefore, continue, for the common and my own good, and the fact that I have wonderful companions and comrades in my path proportionately enhances that blissful feeling.

Interview made by Valerija Brkljač, producer and founder of WebMetropolis Records.

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