Music lovers in Goa will get a rare opportunity to hear internationally acclaimed Bosnian-origin classical guitarist Denis Azabagić perform on Thursday 10 May 2012 (Black Box, Kala Academy at 6.30 pm. Donation passes at Garden Central Music Studio Panjim, above Baba Travels). In an exclusive interview to Navhind Times, he discusses music, performance, practice and more.
1. Welcome back to India, Mr. Azabagić! This is your fourth visit, and your first to Goa?
Yes. I have been to Kolkata 3 times, performing solo and with my duo ( Cavatina Duo-Eugenia Moliner, flute, Denis Azabagić, guitar).There is an annual International Guitar Festival in Kolkata, and I keep getting invited back! I am very glad that I have this opportunity to bring my performances to India and experience this country.
2. You were born in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina. How did you get attracted to classical music, and to classical guitar? Is there a strong guitar tradition there? At what age did you begin?
My parents enrolled me at a music school when I was five, and we only had a sort of child-oriented informational program about the music. After a year we were asked which instrument we wanted to play, and I remember liking The Beatles, and thinking that I would be a rock guitarist, playing in a band.
You can say that there is a very strong guitar tradition now. Many, many good guitar players come from the former Yugoslavia.
3.Who were your outstanding teachers?
My first one was Predrag Stankovic, who is the main reason that I have decided to pursue guitar. He was always so inspirational to me, and remains a very good friend today. In Music Academy in Zagreb, I have studied only for one year with Darko Petrinjak (due to the war I had to leave the country), and later I continued my studies in The Netherlands, in the city of Rotterdam. I met my wife there, who was, and still is someone that teaches me a lot about the music, and passion. Her flute teacher, Jo Hagen, was a great musician, and I asked him if I could work with him. He was very kind to teach me for a good period of time, and I have learned to expand my musical thinking beyond guitar, and mostly because of him.
4. You have won twenty-four prizes in international competitions, no mean feat! You have written a book ("On Competitions", Mel Bay publishers) on this experience. What prompted you to write the book?
Well, it is very hard to control your mind under stress. We all have to deal with our doubts constantly, and this becomes accentuated in performance. I have done many competitions in a relatively short period of time. Many students would ask me about my experience. So, I decided to write about it, and pass on my experience. Funny thing is, I keep going myself to that book to remind me what I still have to do. It does not stop. Stress does not go away. I think we just try to learn to deal with it better.
5. By now you’ve probably judged a few competitions as well. What has it been like? Do you think you are a more empathetic or more severe judge, compared to those who judged you?
I do not know! I can be both. I just use my experience and knowledge when I judge. I think one must be honest, professional, and judge with integrity, that is all.
6. How many hours do you practise every day? What advice would you give young musicians in Goa, regarding daily practice?
I practice between 3-5 hours a day. I teach a lot, and in an ideal situation, I would like to teach less and practice more.I enjoy practicing very much, the process of improving my playing is the most satisfactory activity I do. This comes after a long time where the practice is perceived as a “must do” activity and is not something youngsters are looking forward to. Our 7 year-old son plays piano, and enjoys it very much, but he does not like to practice, but without good and disciplined practice there can not be enjoyment of playing. We cannot improve anything we do if we stay within our limits, and do not push ourselves beyond them. Then we only run in circles. Practice is essential. There is no substitute for it.
7. What instrument do you play on? In your book, you touch upon choice of instrument. Could you advise our guitar-playing readers how one chooses an intrument? I know it’s not an easy answer, but perhaps a few salient points.
I currently play an instrument made by Steve Connor, an American guitar-maker.
If you do not know how to choose and instrument, you should try to find those who do. You can ask good players, teachers, go to the music store with someone who can listen to you play several instruments and give you feedback. The internet is a great tool; it can connect you with the forums. People are eager to share information. Do a lot of research before buying an instrument!
8. Do you play any other instrument apart from guitar?
No, I do not. During the schooling process we all need to learn a bit how to play the piano, but that is just very basic.
9. Tell us a little about your concert program, and what prompted its choice.
I will be playing 5 Préludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazilian composer, and these are really one of the standards in the classical repertoire. So are the Variations on a theme by Mozart, written by Fernando Sor. I like to play some of the standard repertoire, as well as less-well known works that deserve greater recognition. Such is the case with Café pieces by Vojislav Ivanovic, (former teacher of mine when I was attending Music High School in Sarajevo) as well as Suite Out of Africa by a friend of mine, Alan Thomas. The program will be completed by what to me is one of the best pieces written for guitar, Invocacion y Danza by Joaquin Rodrigo. I like to play the music that has Spanish and Latin-American influence, and suits guitar perfectly. I hope the audience will like it.
10. You have a direct connection with two of the composers, Vojislav Ivanovic, and Alan Thomas, the former being your teacher, and both of them friends of yours. Were you their muse when they wrote these works?
No I was not. Vojislav wrote these pieces in the 80s, and gave me the copy when I worked with him in Sarajevo. I wanted to learn from him, and he was another great teacher. Alan is a friend with whom we cooperate, asking him to make arrangements of different pieces for us. He did some arrangements of the Balkan melodies (the part of Europe where I come from), and we have recorded those pieces in our duo’s CD called Balkan Project. We also have from him a piece called Variations on theme Carnival in Venice, arranged for us, upon the works of Tarrega and Briccialdi. Alan often asks me to review some of his compositions, to give him a feedback while he is composing, and I like doing that. He composed Out of Africa, and I heard it, liked it and decided to play it. Interestingly, one of my hosts here in Delhi, was asking me yesterday where he can get the music and start learning it. I was glad to hear that.
11. Will you be offering masterclasses while you are in Goa?
No, but I will be in Kolkata, conducting a workshop from May13th-19th, and if there are those interested in coming to the workshop, which will also include a national guitar competition, they can contact Mr. Avik Saha for the details: M +91 9830052766 • E firstname.lastname@example.org.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times on 9 May 2012)