The youngest participant in the semifinals of the “Queen Elisabeth” Competition in Belgium, the 24-year-old artist started playing her first cello tones at the age of five, in the class of Judit Niderholcer Josifoski, and before going to study in Germany she studied at the Novi Sad Academy of Arts in the class of Marko Miletić. She is known to have extraordinary talent, to be adorned with great musicality, with which she manages to perform some of the most difficult works written for cello with the most renowned symphony orchestras. In addition to great successes and recognitions at the most prestigious competitions, she especially attracted media attention of the domestic and world public by participating in the “Queen Elisabeth” competition in Brussels, to which participants up to the age of 35 can apply. After completing her studies in the class of Ksenija Janković at the University of Music in the German city of Detmold last year, she continued her musical training in Berlin at the University of the Arts in the class of Jens Peter Maintz. She gained the attention of the Berlin audience with her performance in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall with the German Symphony Orchestra.
The “Queen Elisabeth” competition is one big lesson for me. After participating in the International Music Youth Competition in Belgrade (Jeunesses), the Belgian competition “Queen Elisabeth” was the first big competition I applied for. I was nineteen at the time, and with the support of Professor Ksenija Janković and consultations with her, I sent the recording, but I did not have high expectations. When I realized that they had invited me, it was already a big shock to me, I was overjoyed. On the other hand, I was a little worried because I took it all lightly, thinking that they wouldn’t invite me because I’m young and still unknown abroad, so I wasn’t preparing. At that point, I had a concert in America. The program for that competition is huge, I don’t think any competition I’ve been to so far has had such a long list of works. During the first stage, I was surprised that the hall was full. It is a rarity at competitions, so it was also the biggest concert of my life, at the same time. Another thing that was interesting about “Queen Elisabeth” is that the whole audience was in the dark, and the jury was lit, so when I went on stage, I actually only saw the jury. All in all, it’s not the most pleasant experience when you see fifteen big, lifelong idols in front of you listening to you play. I gave it my all, I was overjoyed that the first stage was successfully completed and that I somehow overcame the pressure of the audience and the jury. In the semifinals, everything was even bigger. I was overjoyed that the whole of Serbia was with me and that support meant a lot to me. I also received messages from South America, Asia and Australia. Then, only in the semifinals, have I realized how widely known that competition was! I call it the “Classical Music Eurovision”. During the competition, there was a live stream all the time, so the whole world watched the competition live and all that caused additional pressure and the need to get over myself, to overcome it all and go on stage. It is really a great lesson and an important experience because I managed to cope with all the pressures, to gain strength and confidence.
THE BEGINNINGS – CHILDHOOD
I do not remember the very beginning that well. I learned from my mother that there is this famous story that my grandfather wanted me to play the violin, and that I still decided on the cello… I remember that my choice was also influenced by the concert of Maria Kliegel, when she played Dvořák’s Concerto in the Synagogue. I often spent time at the Isidor Bajić Music School because my mother taught cello there, and my father worked at the opera as a violinist. After that, when I came home, I liked to imitate my mother’s students. I was lucky to be born into a musical family and to grow up in such an environment. I especially remember the day when I first played with the orchestra, and I was very young; I remember that I was sick that day and had a high fever, but that didn’t stop me from going on stage and feeling special, to say the least. I enjoyed it because I knew there were a lot of people in the audience who loved me. My mother told me that at my first solo concert I was so thrilled with the applause that I returned to the stage several times to see the excitement of the audience and enjoyed the applause as much as possible, so somehow from a young age I love the audience and the applause. We work for it all the time, it is in a way a reward for us. Even to this day, it is a greater reward for me when the audience is filled with my music and applause than great success in the competition. I remember an anecdote from the first concert when I played Christian Bach, together with the Novi Sad Chamber Orchestra.
After I played, my entire elementary school class came up on stage to hand me a large bouquet of flowers. It was fascinating to me that 30 people came to bring a huge bouquet of flowers; I have to admit that never happened to me again. I also remember the performance when I played Haydn’s Concerto in C major, I even remember being in a red dress. I went out on stage and the Synagogue was full, completely full. During the orchestral introduction, I secretly put my hand behind the cello and pinched myself to feel if I was really in front of the full Synagogue. Of course, no one even saw it back then, I didn’t even tell anyone for a long time, but I still look back on it with joy. I remember a concert in Subotica, when I performed Vivaldi’s duet sonata together with my mother. I didn’t play with her often, and she invested her whole life in me so … it’s a really special moment for me.
STUDIES AND GRADUATE CONCERT IN THE GERMAN CITY OF DETMOLD
I have to admit that during my life in Detmold, I became very attached to the city, the people, Professor Ksenija Janković, the atmosphere, the audience … because it is, really, a special city. Many say it’s boring, but I’ve never been bored there. Probably because I traveled a lot, so I somehow enjoyed the peace when I returned. I will always remember those four years in Detmold as something beautiful.
I am very grateful to Professor Ksenija, from whom I learned a lot and who was always ready to help me, not only professionally, but also privately, and whom I could rely on at any time. I think we have built a special relationship and I miss her closeness a lot.
Pianist Yumi Kimachi, professor Ksenija Janković, Irena Josifoska
When the time for the graduation concert came, everything was so touching. My parents came for the first time in four years, and I was moved by their presence at my graduation exam. There aren’t many audiences at those final concerts, but my hall was full, which additionally touched me because I saw how many people love and support me. It is the happiest, and at the same time, the saddest day of my life. I was glad to finish one cycle and to round it off with that graduation concert, and on the other hand, it was the saddest because I knew I would leave that city… and that I was leaving the class of professor Ksenija Janković, whom I grown to love very much for those four years.
STUDYING IN BERLIN
I moved to Berlin in November, I am currently at the University of Arts in that city, with Professor Jens Peter Mainz, which was my wish two years ago, because I really like how his students play and when I used to listen to them at competitions and at concerts, I was always delighted with their high level of readiness. There are some classes in the world in which standard work with students is represented, but with Professor Maintz, the work is such that each student shows his own specialty.
Ever since I became his student, I have noticed that he draws out and notices what someone has specifically in them. I met him in a few more courses and I realized that I really like the way he works, pedagogically and personally because he is quite relaxed and confident in us, he has a lot of faith in his students. I feel great support coming from him. It is interesting that at the moment I have the greatest inspiration to play right in front of him.
Professor Jens Peter Maintz and Irena Josifoska
Even now when I have classes over video, I have feel the same, because he is a big name, I know how much he is worth and when such a person has faith in me, or in any of his students, then of course, that gives a great incentive. I am very pleased and grateful that I managed to enroll the cello in his class. I still don’t know many people, but I notice that there is no competition in the class, we support each other. We are aware of where we are and how difficult it really is when a person comes to this place. Before I went there to study, I was a little afraid that there would be a state of constant competition in the class, but there is absolutely no such thing and that is very good. People in Berlin are instructed in everything … in the direction in which to lead a career, which festivals and competitions to go to, which professors are currently interesting for courses, for getting to know each other in general, so one can learn a lot only from sitting in the canteen and talking to someone, which is very important during these years. I realized what the reality is in the music world, what it’s like to live in a big city, it’s not that I’m thrilled with those long trips around Berlin, but I’ll get used to it, it also has its advantages. I work a lot on my mental strength because I think that in such a city and such an environment, it is necessary for us to be mentally strong.
CONCERT IN THE HALL OF THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
In February, I had the opportunity to perform in the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic with one of the largest orchestras in Germany – the German Symphony Orchestra from Berlin. It is something I will always remember because until then, I only watched the Berlin Philharmonic Hall on television or over the Internet, like all of us. I was fascinated that when I first came to the hall I went on the stage and not in the audience. I think that even entering it is a great experience, even when a person goes to a concert “only”, to the audience in general, and I was actually on stage and playing in front of the great conductor Kent Nagano and the packed hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra is so great that one does not pay attention to whether you play solo or in an orchestra, only the music is important.
I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it and I hope that there will be more. The concert life in Berlin is very rich, every day at least five concerts are held in the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, so there are 20-25 concerts a day at several other locations in the city. I have a feeling that all the best musicians in the world live there, even if they have nothing to do in Berlin, they live there. Berlin is perhaps one of the two or three centers of music in the world, and I think that the audience is different because of that. Of course, people’s behavior and attitude towards art is different when they have the opportunity to listen to the biggest stars of classical music, great concerts … That’s why I think they have higher criteria, so honestly, even today when I go on stage in Berlin to play – it’s not easy.
COMPOSITIONS DEDICATED TO IRENA
When a composer writes a piece for me, it is a special type of responsibility. I had the opportunity to play a work by Aleksandar Vujić dedicated to Ivan Bašić and me … Also, compositions by Professor Dejan Despić, Svetozar Saša Kovačević, a German composer, and I think it’s really special when a person reads their name under the title. Of course, when something is written for Rostropovich, then we all somehow want to hear how Rostropovich performed it… So it makes me think – if my name is there, then I really have to perform it the best I can and understand the piece in the best possible way, because I am the first one to perform it. Maybe in 150 years, someone will want to hear exactly how I played it.
When I want to play Shostakovich’s or Dvořák’s Concerto, I can watch and listen to a dozen videos and recordings, but in this case I have to take notes myself and discover, to understand through the theme what the composer wanted to convey. It was by playing works dedicated to me that I became interested in modern music.
Irena Josifoska and Jean Daniel Noir
When we’re younger, I don’t think we are so interested in modern music, but at the moment it is more and more interesting for me to deal with it, just as it is more and more interesting for me to deal with baroque. My interest in baroque music began in September, when for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to play on an authentic baroque cello, on the recording of a CD for “Sony Music”.
When I took the baroque cello in my hands, the first tone was “squeak” and then I realized that the tone was made in a slightly different way. That experience changed my view of how baroque works are played on the modern cello.
THE ArtLink AWARD FOR THE MOST PERSPECTIVE YOUNG ARTIST OF 2013
Awards and recognitions are very important, especially when we are young. It always meant a lot to me when I received some recognition, especially in 2013 for the most promising young artist. That’s when I realized that I was on the right path, that someone noticed my effort and work, and that inspired me to work, to progress even more. In addition to the award and the money I received, the concert at Kolarac is also important, which took place as the first concert of the season, after the New Year; that was when Kolarac was full – a wonderful experience! Thanks to that award, I also played in Paris and it was my first performance there. I have visited many cities in Europe and America, but even today Paris is one of the most beautiful cities for me – it has remained wonderful in my memory. Also, the award of the Association of Artists of Serbia and the award “Little Prince” meant a lot to me because I was already in Germany at that time. Even now when I am abroad, it means a lot to me again when I get some recognition or an opportunity for a concert in Serbia, because that’s how I know that people here haven’t forgotten about me.
LIFE WITH A CELLO, if it could, WHAT WOULD THE CELLO SAY ABOUT IRENA?
What would the cello say about me? Ugh, so I don’t think it would be the happiest, since I often hit it on trips, thank God, I have a good case, so it’s never damaged. It often happens that I am a little nervous while practicing, so I think that on the one hand it enjoys it, but on the other hand it is not easy for it… The fact that I travel all the time is, of course, very interesting and at the moment it is very strange to me that I have been sitting in the same place for two months because of this whole situation with the epidemic. I’m used to traveling; I am in one place for a maximum of ten days. I adore the cello in the moments when I practice it, when I play concerts, but when I travel – not at all. I think it is the worst instrument for travel …
I remember the accident, and I believe it will remain one of the dearest anecdotes in my life, which happened to me two months ago during my return to Serbia … I arrived at the airport and I was happy that I get to see my dad and that I have arrived. At one point a customs officer approached me with a question asking if the cello was mine and asked me to open the box and hand over the cello. While I was convincing him with the documents that the instrument was mine, he didn’t even listen to me… At one point, when he took the instrument and started to pull out the cello’s leg, I realized that he knew what he was doing… He sat down and started playing … That pleasantly surprised me. I always attract attention when getting on a plane or a train, especially when I traveled with two cellos to record baroque music because then I carried both my own and the baroque… I think that the whole train hated me because I took up a lot of space. So in a way my cello life is filled with a lot of travel, anecdotes, a lot of turbulence but, on the other hand, it’s all very nice.
CONCERTS AFTER ISOLATION
Nobody expected this situation with the epidemic, I had a lot of beautiful concerts and festivals planned – everything was canceled until September. Two months ago, I came to Novi Sad to hold a recital, I even started rehearsals with pianist Aleksandar Đermanović, I was looking forward to it, but it also got cancelled. I think we will be the last to return to normal. I was really looking forward to the festival in Verbier, Switzerland; I was supposed to participate there for the first time, but, unfortunately, it was canceled for this year; thank God they invited me for 2021. Taking a break sometimes, getting some rest, dealing with myself is not bad, but I’m used to playing in public often and somehow now I feel a little sleepy. I’m working on myself, I’m learning a new repertoire, I’m improving my technique, but I would like to go slowly get out on stage and play already.
MESSAGE TO YOUNG PEOPLE HOW TO PERSIST ON THE ARTISTIC PATH AND FIND MOTIVATION
It is necessary to look for motivation. When a performer has concerts, when he travels and when he has to rehearse a work as soon as possible, of course he has motivation, and when nothing happens, as was the case during the epidemic, then it is necessary to look for new motivation. I often watch recordings of older concerts, I listen to older artists, as well as the current ones, of course, and that always motivates me … Then, we should read about composers, about artists … Then we realize how similar it was for everyone in a way. We realize that we all struggle with the same fears, questions and that reading, watching movies, interviews, obtaining new knowledge improves our work, thinking and view of the artistic path.
Translation: Jelena Čolović