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 Interview, Ivana Gavrić on Origins

Ivana GavrićSarajevo-born pianist Ivana Gavrić brings together several strands from her career as a pianist, with her latest album. It's a multifaceted collection that explores possible connections between a Haydn piano concerto and the folk traditions of the Balkan regions, while at the same time drawing on those same traditions in a new work by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. A "tombeau"-like selection of miniature tributes to Haydn by other composers completes the album.

Ivana was kind enough to share some of her thoughts about this intriguing recording – a kind of concept album with two distinct, but not unrelated, centres of gravity.

Where did the idea come from to put together the “homage to Haydn” collection that makes up about a quarter of this album? Is there any particular reason why all of the “homage” miniatures – except Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm – are by French composers?

One thread that runs through my album, Origins, weaves together Haydn, with French composers at the start of twentieth century and British composers of twenty-first century. The tombeau tradition, a practice of paying tribute to a musician and friend that had passed away, was particularly popular in France in the baroque period, and was back in fashion in the early twentieth century.

In 1909, Jules Ecorcheville, musicologist and founder of the magazine Société Internationale de Musique, approached a number of French composers to commemorate Haydn on the centenary of his death with a short piece based on a motif that spells out his name in (adapted) musical notes. Fauré and Saint-Saëns refused to take part, but Debussy, Ravel, Hahn, Widor, D’Indy and Dukas agreed to submit their contributions to the magazine. One hundred years later, in 2009, a group of six British composers, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad, were asked to do the same on the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death. On my recording, I perform the offerings by six French composers, alongside Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm, which I had already recorded for Champs Hill Records.

The breadth with which different composers approach the same theme is fascinating. It is impossible not to compare the different homages. I was not so familiar with the music of D’Indy or Dukas before (except for Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of course!), so these glimpses of their sound world, especially Dukas’s rich harmonic language, were intriguing, and encouraged me to discover more of their oeuvre. I’ve also really enjoyed playing the ‘Guess the composer’ game with friends with Widor’s Fugue – so far, no one has come anywhere close! And although I used the same recording of Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm on this recording as presented on her Champs Hill CD with the same name, hearing her work in this new context is illuminating. I feel her sense of fun, cheek and fearlessness is even more evident.

Until relatively recently, a theory by Franjo Kuhač that Haydn was himself ethnically Croatian was quite widely discussed among scholars. Although this idea has since fallen out of favour, he must surely have encountered many different kinds of Balkan music. Do you think there’s still room for the idea that Bosnian, Croatian and other styles influenced Haydn’s writing?

The Croatian Haydn theory is still popular in some parts, and who can tell?! It’s also impossible to pinpoint the exact source, the origin, of a folk melody, especially from this particular part of the world where so many different nationalities and cultures lived together. Haydn would have certainly heard many Croatian, Bosnian, Hungarian and other folk music. However, when he uses these ‘popular’ themes in his works, it is merely with a view of making his music just that – more popular, more exotic-sounding.

You mention the Haydn concerto having been the first concerto you ever performed. Has your approach to it changed over the intervening years?

I think some of my tempi have got much faster – I try to capture the dance aspect in all three movements. And I definitely emphasize and enjoy the rustic elements much more now!

Between the Skies, the River and the Hills evidently has an intimate connection to the landscapes and tales of the area around Sarajevo and Višegrad; were you involved in the compositional process at all, or did Cheryl approach it independently?

My only request to Cheryl was that she somehow incorporate the folk song Kad ja podjoh na bentbasu, the unofficial anthem of my birth city, Sarajevo, which is very dear to me. I had sent her a number of rather different recordings, and as background into the region and its history, I had also sent her a copy of the Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric’s The Bridge over the Drina. It is an incredible book, very densely written, and I certainly did not expect her to read it all. To my surprise, Cheryl not only read it, but embraced it, and certain episodes from it were key in shaping her concerto. Cheryl had offered to show me her work-in-progress, but I decided it was best to leave her to write the work and for me to receive the finished product.

Cheryl hints in her discussion of this concerto at a synaesthetic element to her approach – a river of green E minor harmonies, or a muddy red G minor riverbank. Do clues like this help you when preparing to perform a piece, or do you tend to come at it from your own personal angle?

It is incredibly useful to hear how composers ‘see’ and ‘hear’ their music – and how wonderful it is too to work with a living composer and be able to actually ask all those questions! I found these instructions very helpful and illuminating, and it was good to speak to her about general ideas about the piece, but after that, I used my own method of getting to know the work - though of course ‘my methods’ vary greatly from work to work.

The starting point for Cheryl’s concerto for me was the third movement, due to the folk song – I was immediately drawn to it and intrigued to learn how she had incorporated it into her work. Given that her finale is essentially a passacaglia on the folk song - I think I had a very emotional response to the music, emphasised by my own memories and experiences, which I try to bring to the performances. I am also quite visual, and I enjoyed thinking about the town drunk dancing on the icy bridge in the scherzando second movement. I tried to capture the essence of this story from Andric’s book in my interpretation.

You allude to a certain pride at being able to bring elements of your homeland’s culture to a wider audience, in particular incorporating the iconic Sarajevan folksong Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu into this album in several guises. For listeners interested in exploring the Bosnian connection in classical music in more detail, where would you suggest they start?

Bosnian culture and the culture of the wider region is diverse, and largely based on folk music and traditions. In recent years, there has been a keen interest and appreciation of it across the arts – ranging from the success of Emir Kusturica’s films (he was born in Sarajevo) to more recent international recognition for the author Aleksandar Hemon. The dominating type of music listened to is folk music, and a singer whose work I find particularly interesting is Amira Medunjanin, as she seeks to bring folk music to the present age, often infusing it with jazz. I enjoyed her recent collaboration with the Trondheim Soloists, one of my favourite chamber orchestras whom I had a chance to play with a few years ago.

Although there are records of compositions for lute that date back to 1509 by Franjo Bosanca (Francisci Bossinensis), Classical music in Bosnia really started to flourish after the Second World War. Composers from the region often drew on folk traditions, rhythms and motives in their works and some notable figures are Aleksa Šantić (who was also a poet), Mladen Pozajić, Nada Ludvig-Pečar and Vojin Komadina.

Ivana Gavrić (piano)

Origins was released on Rubicon on 27th September.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC