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Stefan Milenković, violinist, musical pedagogue

The Artist Always Has a Choice

As a child he was celebrated by the country that was called Yugoslavia. In fact, he was a child prodigy who played the violin easier than he could compose sentences. He graduated from the prestigious Julliard School and taught there for 10 years. He has spent the past 12 years lecturing in Illinois, while holding more than 80 concerts around the world annually. He practises yoga and does specific breathing exercises combined with cold water. He doesn’t like altitude, yet has made close to 600 parachute jumps

Stefan Milenković, 43, ended 2019 in Slovenia, where his album of violin concerts by Ludwig van Beethoven and Max Bruch was released in December. He recorded it with the Slovenian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra and under the conductor’s baton of Vladimir Kulenović. Following a major promotion of the album at Cankar Memorial House in Ljubljana on 5th December, he embarked on a tour of Italy. He also held a three-day violin masterclass in Ljubljana, another New Year’s concert in the Slovenian capital, and began 2020 with a concert on 1st January at the beautiful Verdi Theatre in Trieste. Next comes two concerts in Milan – on 9th and 11th January – and February is already fully booked. He will first head to America, then tour Italy again with the Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with the programmes From Bach to Queen and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He has New York concerts coming up again in March…

This celebrated violinist says in jest that even today he sometimes finds it is easier to express himself with a violin in his hands rather than through words. His father was his first violin teacher, while his mother accompanied him on piano from the beginning. Although he tried to play the piano first, it didn’t go well for him. Trying not to be heard by pianists, he claims that he chose the violin because it is harder to play than the piano, more demanding and because it somehow suits him better!

His Serbian-Italian roots afforded him an abundance of charm, which emanated from him on stage when he was still a child. And he first stepped on stage when he was only three, only to become the winner of a competition in Czechoslovakia when he was only six! And to repeat for the thousandth time that he played as a 10-year-old to the then presidents of the U.S. and USSR, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. A few years later, he played at the summer residence of the then Pope…

I had a good balance between that abnormal life for a child and the very normal life that I enjoyed. Of course, my parents were the only ones worthy of the credit for me growing up as a healthy and normal child, despite everything that followed me and in which I was involved

How he survived the glory that he received as a child is the most common question he has been asked during his lifetime, and he still answers it in the same way today:

“I wasn’t aware of that. I knew that part of the day was set aside for the violin and for practice, and everything else was the life of a kid who has his own toys and likes to play with his younger brother but also to fight. I had a good balance between that abnormal life for a child and the very normal life that I enjoyed. Of course, my parents were the only ones worthy of the credit for me growing up as a healthy and normal child, despite everything that followed me and in which I was involved. Back then I was unaware of the importance of this behaviour of my parents, only to be convinced of it later, especially when I was lecturing at Julliard. It is sad how the blind ambition of parents when it comes to their children can turn out to be bad, even fatal when it comes to their children. Thanks to my father and mother, I loved music and managed to identify with music. That was a good foundation for me to continue working; to work constantly. The problem with children acquiring the epithet of a child prodigy is that they quickly become famous, which somehow comes easily to them, and they fail to embrace a life in which they have to work constantly, to perfect themselves. I was brought up in such a way that working and practising were not a problem for me.”

He never said that the violin took away part of his childhood because the violin was always an integral part of his day. He went to a discotheque for the first time at the age of 15, in Italy, and to this day he can count the number of times he’s been to a disco on the fingers of one hand. He found it so loud that when he returned home everything was buzzing in his ears. He said to himself, “Man, this can’t be useful. This is damaging.” 

Stefan Milenković

That wasn’t his form of relaxing fun. However, when he was training kickboxing he found that to be a direct vent. He was invited to many parties during his studies in New York, but for him, the right to have fun came after practising, after everything that considered more important before he would go out to have fun. He almost felt a sense of remorse if he ended up staying out all night. He always considered that his profession is such that he constantly expresses himself through one instrument, which is difficult, and that fitness must be constantly maintained.

Milenković turns 43 on 25th January 2019, and he was 15 when it was impossible in the Serbia of 1992 to continue the path on which he had already earned a name and glory. He went with his parents to Italy, because his mother is of Italian origin from Rovinj, Croatia, and because they had friends there because up until then he’d performed in that country the most. Five years later, in 1997, he moved to New York and remained there for the next ten years. He graduated from the prestigious Julliard School, where he also lectured. When he talks about his life in New York, he mentions various stages:

“I was initially nervous because that’s a city where an hour passes like a second. That panicked pace at which time passes makes a man nervous. Fortunately, with me, that nervousness lasted only a few months until I was settled in until I managed to find inner peace and balance. I was then able to understand this city of 20 million inhabitants. Because it actually isn’t a city, isn’t a nationality. New York is a mindset, and if you understand it you can become a New Yorker instantly. And that’s what’s good about this city. Because all other major cities in the world have, first and foremost, the national identity of the country in which they exist, while New York represents the world and in that sense has no nationality. He belongs to everyone who can feel him.”

I’m a musical omnivore. I eat everything musical. Sometimes I like good jazz, sometimes ethno music, sometimes Indian music, while sometimes I like ethno music linked to mantras, I like modern pop and rock, the odd hit here and there. I like Sting, who is already a classic, but also Beyonce… I have loved the band Queen for the longest time and that love has never left me

And no matter how much he came to know America from all angles, how much he loves and appreciates the benefits offered to an artist on that continent, he is still willing to mourn for good old Europe:

“Nothing can replace the tradition and spirit of Europe. It is irreplaceable. In Europe culture is something that is lived, something that represents an integral part of everyday life. I increasingly consider that, in the future, I could conclude my American dream and return to Europe.”

For a long time, the last 12 years to be specific, Milenković has been teaching at the University of Illinois in Champaign, a suburb of Chicago. He succeeds in balancing his concerts and teaching work, because – as he says – he knew from a young age how to practise, how to train. He considers the most important factor as being the good organisation of time with physical preparation, without which his life would be unimaginable. He does yoga, specific breathing exercises in combination with cold water goes swimming with his wife Gorica or they run together. Together they ride large and powerful motorbikes with which they’ve toured America. He says that he didn’t like heights, yet he’s done close to 600 parachute jumps:

“I still don’t like heights, I don’t like heights that are tied to the ground. I don’t like ladders, I don’t like scaffolding, God forbid that I’m on something that sways in the wind. Many of my parachuting friends started doing parachute jumps precisely due to a fear of heights. I spent five years training sambo, the Russian martial art and military system. Yoga is obligatory for me because I don’t need a gym and can do it wherever I am. Everything I do is in the service of one point, and that’s the concert.”

It could be said that he really does a great deal in order to be as ready and as good as possible when he takes violin in his hands. Today that’s an instrument that was made in 1783 by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711- 1786), who was among the greatest violin masters, alongside Stradivari and Guarneri. More specifically, Stefan was given that violin to protect, for an indefinite period.

Stefan Milenković

This violinist has to plan his life, well because he lives on several fronts simultaneously: “One thing is life on tour, while life when I teach, is different. I’m on the road for almost 200 days a year, and during that time I have more than 80 concerts. I’m not home from May until the end of August. And I’m accustomed to often referring to a hotel as home. It happens that we sit together after a concert, and I’m just exhausted and tell the company – tomorrow I have a concert again, so I’m going home to sleep. And in that case, home is a hotel room. That’s why I’m able to appreciate it when I’m in my own home, and then I prefer not to do anything. And I don’t go anywhere. Then I make my own coffee, using my own machine.”

“Itzhak Perlman, the greatest living violinist, said that a concert is actually the easiest part of our job. Everything else is more complicated and everything else takes away a great part of our time. ”

It should be noted here that Stefan began teaching at Julliard at the age of 22, first as an assistant to Dorothy DeLay and then to Itzhak Perlman, after which he received his own class.

As we speak for CorD, we get to know this artist who is kind and measured, easygoing and easy to communicate with. There are many connoisseurs who believe that two athletes and two artists celebrated the glory of Yugoslavia and Serbia in their own time: Vlade Divac, Novak Đoković, Emir Kusturica and Stefan Milenković. This is usually accompanied by the story of how difficult it is to come from a small country, from a country in the Balkans that has always been somewhere between East and West, and to succeed. Asked how he perceived that Stefan replies:

“At first I didn’t notice that I didn’t understand it. But in the early 1990s, when things started going badly here and I stopped being a child prodigy, I had to go to numerous competitions around the world to prove myself again. I practised for eight hours a day, because that was a fresh start, and I entered each of those competitions with a new name of the country that I represented. It was either the ex-Yugoslavia, or Serbia & Montenegro, then Serbia… And the organisers didn’t know which flag to use. In 1994 the Americans wrote that I was a representative of the former Yugoslavia, and the flag was the formerly Yugoslav one, with the five-pointed star! That was the last time I saw that flag.

Unfortunately, that was a time when the country I come from hampered me more than it supported me. Of course, that’s wasn’t on purpose, but world circumstances were such, with travel restrictions due to the introduction of visa regimes, various blockades etc. Our country’s reputation was at a very low ebb and I often felt very uncomfortable because of that. However, that often also provided me with extra motivation. I’m not a supporter of doing something out of spite, but in some situations, like in the 1990s, I competed with great desire and with plenty of defiances. Others put you in a situation where you are powerless and have nothing left to do but use spite to defend yourself against humiliation.”

There are those who placed their art at the service of some ideology of the moment, but I was never interested in that. I’m convinced that everyone has a choice in every situation. Here I’m primarily referring to artists. Situations in which a person really has no choice are rare

This artist subjectively shifts the scale according to which he measures success, regardless of how his art is valued objectively. For him, it is important to be aware of where he is, what he can do, how much he can do, what he is striving to achieve. He cites examples of great artists or individual athletes who have a team of people around them to help them remain firmly on the ground, to view what is happening around them realistically, not to live in a dream world: 

“Today I know for certain where I am, how much I can do, where I can progress and – most importantly – I am capable of achieving a balance. A career is a process and not a destination. I can give a hundred per cent every time, but I can’t guarantee that this will ensure every note is ideal. I also convey this idea to my students, because they need to be aware of what is possible, what is realistic, and not just what they would like.”

As an educator, Stefan says that it’s not difficult for him to recognise a particular talent when such a student emerges, but it is much harder for him to recognise a person, a personality. Because talent in itself is not decisive if it is not shaped, directed. What matters is what a person gifted with talent is like:

“I never told any student that they don’t have talent. That’s harsh and unnecessary and can’t change anything. There is no need to condemn something that cannot be changed, no matter how true it is. My job is to oversee that students find their way and do what they love, and what they are passionate about. Whether that’s a violin or not isn’t so important. My task is to help them. First, you work with the person, and only then with the violinist. The rest depends on their motivation.”

Asked if he recognises his young self in some young people today, CorD’s interviewee admits:

“It is interesting when a young person appears for whom I was a source of inspiration and imitation. I’m often surprised when I see how they perceive me because I’m not aware of the impression I leave on them. I’m used to the fact that this can be quite different from what I think about myself.”

It’s logical to ask him which music he likes, or what he listens to when he isn’t practising:

“I’m a musical omnivore. I eat everything musical. Sometimes I like good jazz, sometimes ethno music, sometimes Indian music, while sometimes I like ethno music linked to mantras, I like modern pop and rock, the odd hit here and there. I like Sting, who is already a classic, but also Beyoncé… I have loved the band Queen for the longest time and that love has never left me.”

Stefan Milenković

When our artists achieve success around the world, the appetites of their compatriots here and expectations of them grow. There is no one who hasn’t experienced that as pressure, but also as granting oneself the right to seek and demand something from such a personality. Stefan also hasn’t been spared from this way of thinking and behaving, but he clearly determined his stance on this phenomenon long ago:

“Music is my religion, the violin is my temple, and everything else is subordinated to that. I’m dedicated only to the arts. Like many other artists in the past, and today, of course. There have been various moments of turmoil and problems in the history of every nation, there have been terrible times, but artists and art have endured. Of course, there are those who placed their art at the service of some ideology of the moment, but I was never interested in that. I’m convinced that everyone has a choice in every situation. Here I’m primarily referring to artists. Situations in which a person really has no choice are rare.”

He wouldn’t change anything in his life, because he’s satisfied with the way he has led his career. And he would repeat everything again if that was possible.

He believes that education is the most important substance of a person’s life and that it keeps a person awake. He is happy in his second marriage to graduate guitarist Gorica Grozdanić, who shares most of his artistic and sporting affinities with him. He likes to visit his brother Filip in Italy, who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts there and deals in graphic design and animation. In recent years he has done numerous multimedia works in museums. When he comes to Belgrade, his mother Lidija fulfils his culinary wishes, and he says that the Reform Cake has been on that menu throughout his life. He is happy every moment he spends with his family, though he can’t understand why people still smoke so much in the taverns of Belgrade. However, he gets over that, because for him Belgrade is the embodiment of the spirit with which he was endowed as a child and which endures to this day.