Hailed by The Strad after her Carnegie Hall recital for “an outstanding performance of exceptional tonal beauty, great maturity of interpretation, and technical excellence”, Maja Bogdanovic continues to reward audiences worldwide as one of the leading cellists of today.
Hello, Maja please introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello Still in Belgrade Magazine! I am a cellist, traveler, art and nature lover, and a world citizen. I was born in Belgrade, and when I was 16, I moved to Paris to study at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris (the Paris National Conservatory), and then later I studied at the Berlin University of Arts.
Can you please explain how and when you started playing cello? Also, where did that idea come from?
I started playing cello at the early age of 6, in a specialized music school (Kosta Manojlovic), with a very devoted teacher Nada Jovanovic in my hometown of Zemun. Although my parents are physicians, music was always present in our home. For me, these two professions are quite similar, and I think that a person’s motivation to become a musician or a physician comes from the same source. While physicians provide medical help to people, musicians are healers of peoples’ souls.
I was introduced to cello by my cousin who was “in charge” of discovering musical talents in our family. I immediately loved it. Taking it up did not require a long decision making process since I knew I wanted to pursue the career of a cellist with an uncompromising resolution.
Since you went to a Music High School in Belgrade and continued with higher education in Paris, can you explain what your experience was like with the entrance exam? Also, what did student life look like in Paris back in the days?
The entrance exam at that time (1999) was very demanding – it lasted for three weeks. To be able to even play your instrument in front of the jury, you had to pass the solfege exam – the French are quite well known for their complex solfege. Once you passed that phase, there were three rounds of the cello exam. Most of the pieces were defined by the Conservatoire, and some of them were only announced one month before the exam. This was an important test of my abilities.
It pushed me out of the comfort zone, which I think is always necessary if you want to grow as an artist.
In September 1999 the difficulties of reaching the Paris Conservatoire were multiplying. Embassies and airports were closed, there were no scholarships… it looked like a mission impossible for me and my family. Without the help of my parents (my mother decided to sell the apartment in order to help me go to Paris), I would never have made it. I am forever grateful to all the people and family members who helped me throughout this transition.
My student life was very modest. I lived in a residence for “minors,” because I was still only 16 when I arrived in Paris. Everything was new, expensive, and different – different language, people, places, food, I literally had to start from scratch. In addition, I was basically alone because my parents and brother stayed in Serbia. I was very happy when some of my childhood friends decided to move to Paris too. For example violinist Nemanja Radulovic with his family, and pianists Sanja and Lidija Bizjak live here. We all came from the same music school!
You also told me that you received a DAAD scholarship for master studies in Berlin. So, maybe you can tell us more about that experience and what kind of people you met there? Maybe a juicy Berlin story…We are big fans of Berlin down here.
After graduating from the Paris Conservatoire, I continued post-graduate studies both in Paris and Berlin. Both cities are considered to be important musical centers, and I was very fortunate to get a DAAD scholarship at that time. It allowed me a little more freedom in my career, since I didn’t have to look for a job as an orchestral player, and I was able to go on with my lectures and competitions. I really love Berlin. It reminds me of Belgrade a lot. I always return there with great excitement, and discover new places… I used to go to concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic without ever imagining being on that stage one day. But finally ” one day ” came. I was invited to perform in that legendary hall, with the Berliner Symphoniker and conductor Lior Shambadal. We performed a piece written for us by Serbian a composer Aleksandar Sedlar.
I cannot even explain the excitement and responsibility I was faced with, sitting on that stage with my cello.
That’s the juiciest story about Berlin that I can tell – at least in public!
Can you explain the difference between the Russian and French technique of playing cello? What kind of music do you usually play? Who is your target audience?
Both techniques are very interesting but there are many more “cello schools,” like the German or Hungarian, and even American school. Nowadays we can talk about a “global” cello school because of all the influences. I was very impressed by French cello players when I was little (Tortelier, Fournier, Navarra, Gendron and Yo-Yo Ma and of course my teacher Michel Strauss). Some of the characteristics of the French school are flexibility of the right arm and use of the wrist, a bright and precise bow, constant search for different colors, avoiding extensions in the left hand, different types of vibrato. They have excellent exercises and methods that I discovered when I arrived to France. Russian cellists play with a lower right wrist, always privileging a slower bow speed, beautiful full sound, and wider vibrato. It is indispensable for a performer to gain knowledge about different types of playing and find his/her own way.
I play classical music, this is what I have studied for years and years. My repertoire is very wide and it goes from baroque (early) music until contemporary.
My target audience is absolutely everybody: from babies to adults and seniors, from every country, each and every social status.
Can you explain how the booking agencies for classical musicians work? Since you are often on tour, which is indeed great, who is booking you for your gigs?
It is truly wonderful to travel around the world and I am happy to share my ideas and emotions with different people and cultures. You never know where and what the next concert brings you. Nowadays, unless you’re a ” big name ” and in a big agency, artists are responsible for their own gigs. I do work with several managers, and I am thankful for all the excellent work that they do for me, but I would say that for many things you have to depend on yourself.
First of all you need to be prepared; it is our duty to work on ourselves and develop effortless techniques aiming at a brilliant delivery of the pieces we play. If you don’t have the recognition of your colleagues, I don’t think you can go far even with the best managers in the world.
Comment va ton français ?
Il va très bien. En effet, j’ai la double nationalité depuis plusieurs années.
Of the many venues you have performed in, which are the most interesting? Give as a few examples.
In general, there is a tendency to program classical music concerts in unusual venues.
Aside from the fantastic halls where I performed, such as Carnegie Hall, Royal Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic Hall, or beloved Kolarac Hall, my first Dutch concert was a performance in a mill. In Belgium, I performed in a furniture factory – funnily at the end of the concert, instead of flowers you get a bunch of brushes. In Morocco I played in an old Medina, and in France I played in a Casino. Another interesting place where I performed, and it feels and looks like a real heaven on Earth, are Tahiti and Bora Bora.
Where would you like to play music and with whom? Do you still have some unfulfilled dreams?
We all dream, there are always bigger and more important dreams. More than anywhere else, real life in Paris is like the most beautiful dream and I am very grateful for that inspiration.
Name your 5 favorite cities in Europe? And explain to us why.
These are my favorite cities, …. because I could live in any of these five:
Chicago – not in Europe but I just love it.
Besides classical music, which is your passion and your profession, what else do you like? What types of music? Maybe some sports, or a hobby? We know you are into running, we follow your Instagram!
Besides classical music I love jazz. Otherwise, I always like to visit a museum when I travel. I am lucky because my favs are in Paris, like Musee d’Orsay or Picasso and Rodin museums, but also Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Art Institute in Chicago, to name a few. I also love photography. Although self-taught, when I have free time I love to improvise with my Canon camera.
Being disciplined is my lifestyle and besides practicing cello every day, I run three-four times a week, as you might know…..I would love to do a marathon one day, but for now I succeeded in doing a half-marathon. It helps me be in a good shape, get even more energy which I need for all the traveling I do. In addition to the urban activities I love, I enjoy mountains and I love hiking.
I did a few difficult hikes that I’m proud of, in Utah mostly (like Angels landing trail).
Since we are actually a club magazine, I have to ask you what you think of the combination of electronic and classical music? As I remember Jeff Miles once said that in the future classical music will have to get used to combining itself with electronic music or otherwise it will slowly fade away.
What a nonsense! Of course I don’t mind combining our instruments with electronic music if it is well done. I have collaborated on one such project – album recorded for Solo Musica/Naxos. On that album American flutist/composer Mark Rodrieg wrote a compelling three-part work that combines electronic and pop elements with classical instruments. It starts out very much in the electronic/pop vain but becomes increasingly abstract, as the final piece in his triptych is pure avant-garde classical.
But, more importantly, classical music is a unique and universal language and it is not reserved for special or educated audiences. Beyond the level of casual enjoyment, this is the kind of music that inspires and challenges us far beyond the banalities of the simplistic forms and harmonies used in popular idioms.
Classical music is as an art form that both educates and allows for far more creativity, experimentation, and complexity when compared to any type of pop music, which, by its very nature, must follow simplistic formulas. Because of its intrinsic value, I believe classical music should be present everywhere, in all forms of education.
Unfortunately it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves!
What can we expect from you in the near future? Do you plan to play in Serbia again?
Well I just got a call to replace Mischa Maisky in Yusupov’s Cello Concerto in Israel next Monday, so I guess I will be doing some practicing and repacking! Plans for the near future are travels around France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, USA, Finland… This year’s highlight is for sure my first appearance in the Grand Teton Music Festival in the States.
Other highlights are my first appearances in Brazil in June – soloing with the orchestra, giving master classes and playing chamber music. There will be a release of my first solo CD this year as well.
I also have the great honor and privilege to collaborate with Krszysztof Penderecki for more than 10 years, and there are many exciting projects coming up with him.
Of course there are some plans for Serbia as well, and you will know more about that very soon!
I got the impression that you are very confident and powerful in your performances on stage, but somehow you also seem quite shy off stage. Can you explain who is real Maja outside the stage scene?
That might be true at first sight, but actually there are no two different Majas. We all have different layers of personality that can be seen in different situations. It is like the music itself – it is a constant search, full of discoveries, you never play the same piece the same way.
Since you are performing with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and you travel there often please share with us your experience and impressions of this metropolis and also of Japanese culture?
It has been a while since my last trip to Japan, but it is a unique place, totally different from everything that I’ve seen. Nevertheless, in Japan I felt really fantastic, I love their culture, people, art, lifestyle, concert halls, and cities. They are extremely respectful and they are hard workers. Japanese art wasn’t unknown to me, because I’ve always admired a huge Japanese print collection in Monet’s house in France in Giverny. Their art inspired and influenced many French artists (Degas, Manet..) and composers as well, particularly Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, and of course vice versa.
They are a very faithful audience, and they are willing to travel from very far just to hear one concert.
They also loved my red shoes ! I ‘d love to go back again there soon.
At the end, please recommend something to young music professionals who are reading our blog?
Follow your dreams, take risks and be persistent, but also be honest with yourself. Don’t take any success for granted, it should serve as motivation to do even better. I would like to quote one of my favorite female poets, W. Szymborska :
And whatever I do will become forever what I’ve done.
Dragana Kostica is the Belgrade-based editor in chief and founder of Still in Belgrade art, culture and club scene magazine. She holds a Master of Arts in Cultural Policy and Management in Arts (MA of Arts) and a Bachelor degree in Archaeology.