Beyond classical piano. A brief conversation with Kemal Gekic

By Cynthia Saez

Kemal Gekic, the Croatian pianist who made his U.S. debut 1999 and was subsequently selected by Florida International University as their artist-in-residence, opens the Miami International Piano Festival’s Master Series this year. And since artists are more known for their performances, repertoire or roles, than for being themselves, MAG takes this opportunity to speak with the person behind the work and to share his testimony with our readers – many of whom are already familiar with his art.

Regarded as one of the most significant piano virtuosos of our times, Mr. Gekic will play Chopin’s 27 Etudes and 4 Ballades on Sunday March 15th at 3:00 p.m. That same evening, at 8:00 p.m., Gekic presents the 12 Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt as well as the Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178. Both concerts take place at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Amaturo Theater.

Gekic’s performances continue to garner critical acclaim, and for very good reasons: not only does he possess a daunting technique, but more important he imbues every piece he plays with intelligence, complete poetic vision and artistic imagination, creating some of the most thrilling interpretations of classical repertoire heard today.

Cynthia Saez: Being a true musician is a privilege, but it also poses an enormous responsibility to the music, and ultimately to the audience. What, in your opinion, are the necessary ingredients required to make a true musician? Dedication? Talent? Strong will? Being gifted?

Kemal Gekic: All of the above, and then some. Probably the most important single feature (besides the talent, which is indispensable) is to be a personality, to have charisma, to have something to say.  I would describe musical talent as a composite of many characteristics. To mention just some: perfect hearing, spatial harmonic, absolute sense of rhythm, memory (aural, visual, muscular, etc), coordination, quick neural responses, and some psychological traits. I would mention two of the most important: imagination and courage. Musicians should also have a burning desire to communicate their art to the audience.

A musician (or any other type of artist) has to relate to his or her talent similarly to the way a farmer relates to his land. A farmer has to work on the land, and work very hard to have a good harvest. An artist has to work obsessively on his talent in order to develop it and “harvest” the results of this work. Beethoven described himself as someone who is squeezing the grapes of Bacchus and making the wine which will intoxicate humankind.

CS: According to your biography, you started playing the piano at the early age of one and a half. Looking back now, was there any point in your musical journey when you thought you wouldn’t succeed?

KG: There was never such a point in my life. I always believed both in music and in myself, and never thought much of music as a profession. I saw it more as a kind of mission, a vocation. So, there is one more characteristic, which I did not mention in my answer to your first question – faith. One must believe strongly, otherwise success is impossible.

CS: For many artists around the world, Miami is a growing cultural destination where it is possible to communicate with new audiences. There is also an incredible number of talented individuals living and working in the city – a number that increases by the day. What is your experience as an artist, performer and educator living and working in Miami?

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KG: First, let us state some plain truths: Nine months out of twelve, Miami is a paradise on earth. The weather is just amazing. And the remaining three months aren’t that bad either. This fact attracted a lot of wealth – cultural, scientific as well as significant material wealth.  The potential is simply astonishing. I see Miami as a young, multi-cultural and vibrant city, where many things are possible, especially when initiative, sympathy and support collude. It was my great pleasure to work with Carlos Riazuelo, Carlos Piantini, James Judd, Manuel Ochoa, Stuart Robertson, William Noll (conductors), Miami String Quartet, Amernet Quartet, Robert Davidovici (violinist), Paul Green (clarinetist), Iris van Eck (cellist), Fredrick Kaufman, Orlando Garcia (composers), Miami Symphony, Miami Chamber Orchestra, Florida Philharmonic and many others….

CS: You are a piano professor at Florida International University. Can you tell us about today’s music education programs and how, in your opinion, they might contribute to increasing the awareness of classical music among Miami’s audiences?

KG: I believe in diverse, eclectic music programs. It seems the musician of today and the future will be a well-rounded and informed professional. The School of Music at Florida International University offers such programs. We are also always working on them, updating and making them more cutting-edge.  I also believe in the importance of going out in the community, to be present not only academically but to present artistic results within our community. FIU School of Music does precisely this, through various programs like FIU Festivals, students’ concerts, thematic concerts, etc.

CS: The Miami International Piano Festival has grown over the years to become a sought after venue for piano performance, locally as well as internationally. You have participated in many of its editions. Can you describe your experience as a collaborator with the Festival?

KG: Miami International Piano Festival (MIPF) has acquired great prestige all over the world.  There are many features this festival shares with others, but also there are some unique ones, pertaining only to this Festival. The first and foremost is artistic excellence and faith in a project of artistic value, no matter whether it is popular or not. I would attribute this to the unfaltering faith and vision of its Artistic Director and Founder, Giselle Brodsky, whose tireless enthusiasm made possible things we could not dream of only a decade ago. Many music festivals rely heavily on the contribution of prize-winners of various competitions.  In some competitions, engagements are actually a part of the prize.  MIPF does not feature competition winners just by virtue of their winning prizes. Sometimes the Festival invites a 2nd or 3rd prize winner or someone who didn’t make the finals instead of the top prize winner because the Festival does not believe in ranking artists. Recently, there was an entire Well Tempered Clavier (by Bach), performed in two sessions during the same day. The goal of the Festival is to promote the talent and help it gain exposure and visibility. Many artists got recording contracts and management contracts after taking part in the Festival. MIPF is closely associated with Steinway and VAI, providing the best conditions for artists. My experience has always been an excellent one. I performed many times in the Festival (both in the Discovery and Master series), I recommended other artists, and I helped search for talent all over the world.

CS: Lastly but not less important, how do you see yourself as the man behind the name?  What would you like your future to bring?

KG: I have traveled around the world many times, made many recordings, played in beautiful and famous halls, and had many touching and life-changing experiences. I don’t expect much of a change in this area, but somewhere else. I have always been a bit of a mystic. I expect to see a fusion of my activities into something else, which I can only vaguely name as spiritual accomplishment.

I see art has many functions: first, the art because of art, l’art pour l’art, (this is very good already, although I never believed in it completely), second, art as a means of communication (much better because it involves a social function, it is less self-centered), and third, art as means of knowing, a spiritual accomplishment. All of these functions co-exist simultaneously. It depends what we are focused on. I am looking forward to the future which will bring undreamt of artistic and spiritual adventures.

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