World-renowned violinist Sreten Krstić recently accepted our invitation to participate again in the work of the eleventh annual Summer Camp for Chamber Music. Krstić ‘s career is unusual in many ways. After successful schooling and first prizes at international competitions for young violinists, he began his career as concertmaster of the Munich Philharmonic in 1980, a position he held for almost forty years. He founded numerous chamber ensembles within the Philharmonic: the string sextet and orchestra of soloists of the Munich Philharmonic, along with the Gasteig Trio and other ensembles. For the last ten years, he has been leading the famous Zagreb Soloists orchestra. Below is an interview with the artist conducted last summer in Lovćen, during his participation in the 2021 Summer Camp for Chamber Music.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you began playing the violin? Is there a family tradition or something similar that brought you closer to music?
There is nothing spectacular, definitely. In elementary school, a music teacher would test students to see if anyone had talent and would refer them to the music school. I found myself in that selected group and went to music school, where, based on my physical attributes at the time, they decided that the violin would suit me best. So I started playing. I progressed quickly. However, when my father realized that I was actually doing quite well and that I would likely end up with music as my profession, he became worried. These were the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the “real” professions were doctor, lawyer, and engineer. My sister, who was three years older than I, played the piano. She didn’t receive my father’s support to continue toward playing music professionally, and she still suffers because of it. Then, when it was my turn, it was the same story. However, my mother supported me in my decision to play the violin and decided she would help me if I could not make a living from playing. Since she was born in Niška Banja, where there were several chapels where people played, my mother had often listened to and loved the violin in her youth. So she decided on that. Anyway, who knows where I would be today and what I would have done otherwise? Well, that’s the only interesting thing, the rest was standard stuff: schooling, competitions, and the path that opened up to my happiness. In high school, I came into the right hands, with a teacher who was a student of Professor Petar Toškov. Later, I also studied in his class, which also included Jovan Kolundžija. We went the same way and it was quite successful. Since Professor Toškov disappeared overnight, I finally graduated in the class of Aleksandar Pavlović, which was actually very good for me. In Toškov’s school, the student aims to be a virtuoso, more in the technical direction, while Pavlović had a completely different approach. First he played music and then he solved technical problems. That combination was great for me.
He also wanted you to be his assistant, right?
I was his assistant for a few years, but then it happened that I went to Germany. My first wife, the flutist Irena Grafenauer, got a job at the Bavarian Radio. Later I got a place in the Munich Philharmonic.
Do you think that your prize at the Youth Music Festival in 1976 opened the door to the international music scene?
I do not think so. Now that I look back, I don’t think that award meant anything special to me. It provided me with a couple of tours in France and the Côte d’Azur, but that didn’t really launch my international career. It was one significant detail in my professional life at the time. I would rather say that the door to the international music scene opened for me by my going to Munich.
Do you think that competitions and festivals today have the same impact on the careers of young musicians as they used to?
I think it has become completely irrelevant not only today but already many years ago. You have winners in various competitions that no one has ever heard of later.
What does that tell us?
Well, that tells us that winning a competition does not mean that someone will make an international career. It’s really an individual thing, how one breaks through and pushes through. The award itself does bring something, whatever it might be: money, first of all – which at that stage comes in handy – or maybe a couple of recitals or concerts with some orchestra. However, that phase also passes. Then, the question becomes whether you will be lucky enough to be heard by a manager who will develop your career or something similarly fortunate. There used to be competitions – like the Tchaikovsky or the Queen Elizabeth — where the first prize meant everything.
Do you think that has anything to do with the hyper-production of the competition?
It does, definitely. The fact is that there are a million competitions that I have never heard of, some small, some medium, some large. Definitely the quantity influenced the devaluation of that.
During your engagement with the Munich Philharmonic, you collaborated with many great conductors. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from them, both in music and in life?
I was lucky that in 1989, when I went to Germany, Sergiu Celibidache became the conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and that after half a year in Munich I got a place in the orchestra. I must say that the first audition I took was for the leader of the second violins, which was then the only vacancy, and, naturally, I passed the audition. I worked in that position for about a year and a half, but everyone already knew that I was “overqualified” for that position and it was clear that I would leave sooner or later. Fortunately for me, a concertmaster left and a place opened. I auditioned again. This was then a unique case in Germany because no one had ever moved from the seconds to the first violins, let alone from the seconds to the position of concertmaster. In addition, at that time I was the youngest concertmaster in the country. It’s a curiosity, but that’s how it was. The conductor Celibidache definitely had the biggest impact on me.
What was his way of working?
He was quite exclusive, but he was a fantastic teacher. The teacher who served up everything you need to know; you just needed to listen and understand. It couldn’t be clearer. Everything was clear to him; he had an explanation for everything. There was no “Well, we play forte here because I want to,” in the way conductors can change something even though it is not written in the score just because they heard it that way somewhere and so on and so forth. For everything Celibidache wanted, he had an explanation and a specific reason, cause and effect. It was always known who was listening to whom in the orchestra and why it was played louder in some places, why it was quieter in others. It was all clear. He knew how to explain things and whoever you were you could learn a lot from him about music. He said that he knows everything he wants to get from the orchestra, and listens for what he wants, but is also aware that we in the orchestra do not know all of that and therefore have to learn it. Sometimes he was impatient and so had harsh reactions. Some musicians took his criticism personally and then there were problems. I think I definitely learned the most from him. After sixteen years, as long as he conducted the Munich Philharmonic, all the conductors who came after him were not equal to him in knowledge or humanity.
In addition to large orchestras, you have played in various chamber ensembles, many of which you founded, but also as a soloist. Is there a genre in which you feel yourself most comfortable and which you especially like to play?
It is absolutely chamber music. That’s my life, that’s me. Solo music is wonderful, and I love it, but the interaction you have in chamber music in any ensemble, even in a duo, is irreplaceable. It’s something that fills me up – the working together, the creating, the reacting, the process, and the uncertainty of the outcome. It’s all exciting.
What musical style do you like to listen to?
Rock and roll, just so you know (laughs). I’m an old rocker. Led Zeppelin, hard rock, etc. I just laughed the other day while we were doing a quintet. I asked the students if they knew what was the most beautiful place in Bruch’s Violin Concerto? They cite various places in the solo section, but I tell them it’s a tutti place, in the middle of the first movement – pure rock and roll, it can’t get any better. I never listen to classical music by myself, but instead rock and pop.
How about playing?
I admit I am a romantic soul. I can’t find myself in modern atonal and experimental music. Music must have melody and harmony, and that is how it goes until Schoenberg’s first period.
We live in an age in which music content is available to us via the internet at all times. Do you think this is a bad set of circumstances for music and musicians or vice versa?
With the development of YouTube technology, you can type on the keyboard and listen to whatever you want, when you want, and watch at the same time, which means you don’t have to go to concerts anymore – and to me that’s wrong. In that sense, I consider it a shortcoming when it doesn’t matter if you are listening to a concert in the hall or watching it on the phone in the room. It is a completely different experience. That is why Celibidache, for example, never wanted recordings of his concerts to be made public. Someone who wanted to hear his performances had to come to the concert. Yet I know that at the end of his life he gave his consent to it and that some of his recordings went public posthumously.
How do you think the overall situation with the pandemic in the previous period will affect musicians, music events, and the music scene in general?
If I knew that, if anyone knew that, you’d win the Nobel Prize. What will it be like? How has it affected us so far? I would say, in a word, tragic. There is so much injustice in this whole thing. What is a fact is that freelance artists have failed, changed professions.
Can we say that the profession of musician is in some sense endangered by this, and where is the motivation for young musicians to continue to play music professionally?
That is the current question and it is a dilemma. You miss music – but now you are studying technology, or learning to be a chef, or something else that will be needed. It is so sad. Spiritual values and needs are being neglected, all this is being destroyed. I am disappointed with the German government and the policy that has taken it all down, in a matter of seconds, without pardon. Germany, which is a cradle of culture, of classical music, which has a million orchestras, an orchestra in every village. It was not so drastic everywhere. For example, in Croatia, where I work with the Zagreb Soloists, they are far more liberal. During the peak period in March and February, they played concerts, until April, when everything stopped. But, after that, we already had concerts with the audience, not with a lot of people, but thirty people are better than a live stream without an audience. I don’t know how it’s going to wind up. People manage; many do live streams, home concerts. Everyone gets by as best they can.
For the last ten years, you have been actively engaged in pedagogical work both in the region and in Europe. How do you perceive the new generation of violinists and what is their approach to music and performance?
How do I perceive violinists – that would be a more accurate and precise question. The trend of women playing the violin is very obvious. This can be seen in auditions where the relationship between male violinists and female violinists gradually changed. Today, it is strange if a male violinist appears at an audition. It makes me wonder, what do young guys care about in the end? More or less, it is the same with other instruments. The fact is, for example, that there are more female double bass players than male ones, although this instrument has long been considered more suitable for male performers. When it comes to young performers, I think that the level of education has been falling for years, because the professors are not at a good enough level to teach students what they will feel later in their playing. Fortunately, there are so many more talented young musicians that even that cannot diminish their quality; they find their own way.
As part of Beethoven’s 250th birthday commemoration, you arranged the First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony and the Egmont Overture for string orchestra. How did you come up with the idea to make new arrangements of these famous symphonic works? Is arranging a new kind of challenge for you and will you do something similar in the future?
Like everyone else during my studies I learned counterpoint and harmony and I remember that I then even started learning composition, but that was short-lived. In the symphony orchestra, I learned to listen to the sounds of certain groups of instruments, how the instruments were arranged, and then it started to interest me. All the works we played I analyzed from the aspect of instrumentation. Working with the Zagreb Soloists was a way for me to start taking this on. We often performed the same compositions at our concerts, and I wanted to enrich our repertoire. Thus I started arranging compositions that were written for different ensembles and instruments. That was the beginning. Since arranging Beethoven symphonic works, I have arranged many others. Arranging occupied me and intrigued me because when I produce an original composition from another composition, I finally create a completely new sound. It’s like, in a way, I’m creating a new work. It was challenging, new and at the same time interesting for me.
This is your first time at the Summer Camp for Chamber Music at Ivanova Korita as a mentor. What kind of ears do you wear at Camp?
It seems to me like a paradise on earth. That is my personal experience of this environment. You couldn’t have found a better place. Everything is well organized and the enthusiasm of young people who are working hard is pleasing. I enjoy working with them, watching their development from day to day, raising something to a certain level in five days. The idea is great. There are no chamber music camps in the area – everybody is training to be a soloist, maybe two of whom may stand out in a generation. It is precisely because of this forcing of solo playing that the musician neglects chamber music, which unfortunately is treated as something secondary. For me, chamber music is the basis. It teaches us to listen to each other, to fit into an ensemble, and so much more. Solo repertoire has its charms, but chamber music is, for me, far above that.
Lovćen, 4 August, 2021