Originally from the region of Yugoslavia that is now Serbia, Vladimir Kulenovic considers himself to be both a Bosnian and a Croatian. He still calls himself a Yugoslavian, because that was his country. During a tumultuous time in a volatile region, Vladimir left the country with his family at the age of twelve, after his father was exiled for organizing large protests in Belgrade against the Yugoslavian regime. The demonstrations were peaceful, comprised mostly of musicians and artists, but they were making an impact, and so the family had to leave. His father, a composer and a teacher, was offered employment in both France and the United States, but he decided to accept the offer from the latter, and the family moved to Massachusetts.
It was in Boston that Vladimir was able to begin pursuing his dream of becoming a professional pianist and conductor. At eighteen, he was accepted into the Boston Conservatory, where he earned degrees in conducting and piano performance, graduating as valedictorian. From there, he went on to attend the Peabody Institute in Maryland, where he earned a graduate degree in conducting. He then completed his postgraduate work at Juilliard.
Kulenovic has conducted for a number of orchestras around the world since his professional debut in 2006 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada, including a year as the Principal Conductor in Kyoto before accepting his current position as the Associate Conductor of the Utah Symphony. Right now he is conducting in Germany, where he will spend the remainder of the month traveling with world-renowned conductor Kurt Masur, with whom he studied during his time in New York. In the coming months, he will return to Serbia, make his way to the former Yugoslavian region, and perform at a number of concert halls there, the first conductor to do so in over twenty years. Afterwards, he will return to the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City and conduct throughout 2013.
We sat down to chat in the conductor’s suite at Abravanel Hall on an early fall afternoon.
Erin Kelleher: Give us an overview of your work, your “journey,” if you will. How did you get from Serbia to Salt Lake City, Utah? Did you always know that you wanted to be involved with music?
Vladimir Kulenovic: Well, that requires a multilevel answer, I guess. I could just be really cheesy and say, “Practice, practice, practice,” but it wasn’t just that. I did always wanted to be a musician; since I was about two and a half I would be conducting recordings. I’m under the conviction that if you can live without being a musician, then you should, because it’s just too much work. But, if you really cannot, then you do not have a choice. It’s really not a choice to be a musician. You have to be crazy to make this choice. But it honestly never felt like a choice for me. I wasn’t forced to do it – it was just the first thing that was available that opened up in my life. My parents have pictures of me conducting when I was about two, two and a half, and I started violin and piano very early, at five. Shortly after, I began composing when I was around nine – my father is a composer and my mother is a pianist and teacher – so the flow was there and it was really great.
Throughout my education, I knew that I really wanted to do it to the highest level. I was really ambitious, but in a good way – not egoistically, but in the sense that if you do actually strive and manage to achieve the highest level of your own ability, hopefully that will put you at the top of the map. You do reach a wider audience that way, so you actually have a more rewarding opportunity to contribute with what you do.
Growing up in Yugoslavia during the war in the nineties, there was no other reason to continue doing what you were doing unless you were just absolutely crazy about it. So it was actually a great time, and worked hard until I could enter college, and then I continued my education in Boston, Baltimore, and New York. It was always my dream to study at Juilliard, because my piano teacher in Belgrade was a Juilliard grad, and he was amazing. So I just set the goal, and it happened, so I’m very happy about it. And, after that, I landed here. A lot of it is chance, but to earn that chance, especially if you really come from the third world – and I can say without exaggeration that I do – if you want to have the chance available for you, it’s still going to be chance, but if you want to make it available, you have to set yourself up pretty well for that. It takes a lot of conviction and perseverance. So I guess that’s the part of the “practice, practice, practice,” as they say.
Erin: Talk a little bit about how you decided to study in the United States versus, say, somewhere in Europe.
Vladimir: The matter of how I ended up in the States is a different story. It’s completely nonmusical, but quite a dramatic one. My father was a composer and a professor at the University of Belgrade during the 90′s as the wars were starting, and he couldn’t just sit back and watch it happen. So, with seven other teachers from the school, he organized this huge antiwar protest. People came from around the country. And there were daily protests for months.
Erin: And your father was one of the original organizers?
Vladimir: Yes. I would actually come to some of the protests, and see my dad give some of his speeches, and it was really great. I was twelve years old, and it was very exciting. He had quite a Gandhi-esque approach. Even at that young age, I saw the principle behind it. It was a tough time, probably one of the toughest times and regions in the world. You had to grow up quickly – rather, you didn’t have time at all in which to grow up. But it was really rewarding and admirable to see these things happen and to be able to take part in them.
There were several positional parties that also had their own protests, but this one, this student one, was entirely pacifist. It wasn’t driven by political gain; none of the organizers had any ambition to run for office or to do anything political. They just wanted to stop the war and get this dictator in Serbia – [Slobodan] Milošević – out. Unfortunately, they were not initially successful, so my dad was exiled in 1992 after an attempt on his life at one of the protests. He had a choice between France and the United States, so he chose to come to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship provided by the New England Conservatory in Boston, and that was one of the steps of chance that led to me getting this position here in Salt Lake City.
Erin: You graduated summa cum laude and as valedictorian from the Boston Conservatory, where you earned degrees in conducting and piano performance. Describe what your experience was like and what you learned there.
Vladimir: It was the first of three schools that I went to, and they were in succession. In comparison to the other two, it was probably the least prestigious, but it was a very nice time, a formative time. Just to be in Boston, I was able to do so much. I was actually working at Harvard as an assistant conductor, and there was another orchestra outside Littleton where I was assisting as well – they were very small – but it was a way to gain experience. In the meantime, I would, of course, get all my coursework done, and still make time to go to the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and that was great.
Coming from Serbia, we had nothing, absolutely nothing, no opportunities. Maybe an artist would come once or twice a year, but that was a big maybe, because people were very afraid. A couple of them who had great experiences in the past and really appreciated the audiences would return, because the audiences in Belgrade are great, really great – I have not seen a better audience anywhere in any European country or in Asia or here in the states. As both a performer and an audience member, I can say that with great conviction. Anyway, some performers would come back, but it was rare. So when I came to Boston, I was so hungry, and I took advantage of everything. I maximized everything and just went for it without any reservations. I think I took advantage of every single opportunity that came to me there, but it wasn’t enough.
Erin: And then you earned your graduate diploma at the Peabody Institute, followed by your postgraduate conducting studies at the Juilliard School. Who did you study with in those programs? Talk a little about your experiences in Baltimore and then New York City.
Vladimir: One of the people I was working with at the Boston Institute was Bruce Hangen, who was actually the resident conductor of the Utah Symphony in the late nineties. He was the one who first told me about this orchestra job, and he gave me some of the old Abravanel recordings. So I had my eye on this job from the very early stages. But he told me, “You just need to keep going and keep developing.” So, I went on to study with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute for two years, and that was very intense and very great. After that, I went to Juilliard for another two years for my postgraduate diploma, and that was incredible, that was the dream I had when I was a kid.
Erin: How did you come to work with the Utah Symphony?
Vladimir: I am very responsible in the sense that I really took a lot of time and used that time maximally to develop myself so that I could be maximally equipped and competent as a conductor, as a musician, and also as a person. Being a conductor, there are so many things that you can’t learn on the job, and I didn’t want to get a job and start and not be able to give 100%. It’s sort of like (laughs), well, it’s sort of like what John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But it’s true: it’s not about what the job can do for you; it’s about what you can do for the job. So I waited, maybe twice as long as some, because I wanted to make sure that I could give 100% and more. So, yes, I came here, and it was my only audition, the first one that I got, and it worked, so I am very happy.
Erin: Earlier on, as an undergraduate, did you ever have a side job, something that you did to get you by financially?
Vladimir: Well, in Boston I had the two assisting jobs, and I also taught piano. Actually, I didn’t have a day off for two years straight, literally. I had a 15-student piano studio and I taught privately while I was in Boston. I taught a little bit in Baltimore as well, but the program was very intense then. In 2008, I started working with Kurt Masur, and that was a terrific opportunity because he is so well known and was the Music Director with the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the French National Orchestra, the Komische Oper Berlin – the list goes on and on. So that was amazing, and it was a lot of traveling because of his schedule; he tours pretty much all the time. So we worked in New York, and also in Bonn, Germany, and actually, in a couple days, I am continuing to work with him; I’m going to Leipzig and will be conducting at what is one of his most important orchestras where he truly created magic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, so I’m going there and will be working there for the month of September as his assistant.
Anyway, regardless of that, the conducting was starting to have a snowball effect; I was getting really high-profile opportunities and had to let things go in that way and it was really challenging financially earlier on, and I am no stranger to frugality. But, I made it happen, and it ended up being okay, I was able to manage it. It was a lot of chance, but, you know, I enjoy risks (laughs).
Erin: How do the facilities here in Salt Lake to compare to others that you have performed in? What is your overall impression of Abravanel Hall?
Vladimir: The hall here is great. Obviously Juilliard is at Lincoln Center in New York, so even though it’s a school, all of my conducting concerts were at Alice Tully Hall, which is one of the greatest halls in the country, so I’m a little spoiled (laughs). And I have since conducted in some very good halls abroad like the Beethoven Hall in Bonn with the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra and in the National Concert Hall in Taiwan. And this one, Abravanel Hall, matches pretty much anything. It’s the highest level of concert hall that you can ask for. It possesses a very unique sound, and I can relate because it has a lot in common with the Avery Fisher Hall in New York, which I spent a lot of time in. The two halls even look similar. Abravanel Hall is a little smaller, but acoustically, it’s actually a little bit better – Avery can be a little cloudy at times. This hall here in Salt Lake is just about perfect.
Erin: You have also conducted at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Park City, Utah – that was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. The location is beautiful, and the space there is a lot more intimate. How do you feel about that space? Do you feel that you connect more with the audience since it is quite a small venue?
Vladimir: It all depends on the repertoire, and there are so many advantages of performing in such a venue, even compared to Abravanel Hall. For certain repertoire – you can’t compare apples and oranges – but for the pieces that we do at St. Mary’s, it’s perfect, because it’s very precise. It’s not dry precise because churches always have a lot of geometric shapes, so the sound actually travels in very interesting ways acoustically that we’re not necessarily conscious of while listening, but that still really enhance the color of the music. So, yes, I enjoy that venue very much. And really, just the fact that you are performing in a church – especially in such a location – it can really produce a sense of profundity. I don’t know why, but there it is. You can feel it, and you can feel that the audience feels it. Doing [Richard Wagner’s] Tristan Und Isolde there was just . . . wow. I don’t even have the words for it. You can’t ask for a better experience than that.
Erin: I’m a big fan of classical music – Vivaldi is a personal favorite of mine – but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert. I remember taking a music class in college and loving so many of the pieces, but not being able to pin down every composer and every piece. Do you feel like you qualify as a classical expert? I’d imagine that you must be exceptional at recognizing many pieces.
Vladimir: Yeah, I guess you can say that (laughs). As a pianist, I could probably even pinpoint the performer from a given recording. We had quizzes both in school and with friends where we would challenge each other. I’m a classical nerd (laughs again). But it’s pretty cool, because it really comes from understanding. It’s not some kind of data that you just collect and log in and remember – of course, some of it is memory and just knowing the pieces and the repertoire, that’s huge – it’s actually knowing the composers, and I mean in a profound way. You actually get to meet them. Take Brahms, for example. If you really commit yourself to him and his music, you will understand his personality, you will understand how that actually translates to sound, and you will recognize that sound as his language, and it’s very, very recognizable. To enter this world as a performer, you have to identify with the composer; it’s the only way to enter through this door. If you’re an actor, if you’re playing Hamlet, you have to become Hamlet, or at least form the illusion of doing so for the time being, but it has to feel as strong as reality for the understanding to really penetrate.
One of the things that I really enjoy doing is presenting new material to audiences that they have probably never heard and thus allowing the value of the piece to be rediscovered. At St. Mary’s, we did a Utah premiere of a piece – Gounod’s Symphony No. 1. I mean, nobody knows this piece. Nobody ever performs it. I haven’t ever heard about it in concert, so we dug it up. I’m always curious to find new pieces. This particular piece sounds quite like Haydn. If I really didn’t know who composed it, I wouldn’t say it was Haydn, because it’s not – Haydn is very particular – but there are stylistic similarities. So we put it in a French program, and it worked. There are always oddities in music, and that is one of the many things that keeps it interesting.
Erin: Being a conductor requires having an exceptional ability to analyze music and being able to listen for points of tension in a piece. You have to have an excellent “musical ear.” Is this something that you have always possessed, or did you have to work towards it?
Vladimir: Yes, of course, it takes a lot of training. Some of it is genetic, but you have to discover it and cultivate it. It really helps for a conductor, because your job – along with many other facets – is to have a very critical ear. Your mind has to hold the whole conception. In a performance, your ears and your mind have to work together. Basically, the mind sets a standard for a performance that you have acquired in all of your preparation, and you have to have the technique to do it, with your hands and with everything that you did in rehearsal and with all of your ideas and your experience; you have to be able to advise the performers on how to actually play. You have to be able to hear well, and fast. That was something I learned how to do very well at Juilliard. I had the greatest teacher in the world for this – her name was Mary Anthony Cox. She was a student of Nadia Boulanger – so many composers have studied with her – so studying with Ms. Cox was so rewarding; she really redefines discipline. She was my favorite teacher ever. She was very strict, but she taught me so much. It wasn’t just about ears; it was about everything else, too. What she does is amazing. It’s extremely intense, but because you are doing something so wonderful, you are actually happy doing it. She helps you understand that you perform best when you really love what you do.
Erin: Describe the typical conducting process. What impact does a conductor have on an orchestra? What is the relationship between the conductor and the composer?
Vladimir: When you see a really great conductor, there is no substitute for the effectiveness of actual musical narration. It’s kind of a position of power, but it really shouldn’t be. When you are on the podium, your job is really just to be the composer’s advocate, to serve the composer, and, more specifically, to serve that piece. You should never spoil it with anything else in the process. That goes back to the ears and hearing as well. If the orchestra senses that your ears are not very good, you’re not going to be able to have what it takes, and you will have to compensate in other areas, from the dark side. It’s kind of like being a Jedi (laughs). Really, though, it is, because there is a lot of psychology involved, and when you work with an orchestra for a long time, you have to sustain that. You really have to know the curves.
Erin: Do you have any plans to return to Serbia? Will you be conducting any performances there?
Vladimir: Yes, actually, and soon. There is a very meaningful project for me that I have coming up for which I will be returning to Belgrade. And, of course, I am not only Serbian, but a mixture of Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian – I still call myself Yugoslavian because that’s what I am and that’s what I feel – so next year I’ll be conducting first in Belgrade, then with the Slovenian Philharmonic, then with the Zagreb Philharmonic [in Croatia], and finally with the Macedonian Philharmonic, so four of the orchestras in one year. And I will be the first conductor – well, not only the first conductor, but the first musician – to bridge the gap and go from one country to the next in over twenty years, due to the war and everything. So this is really important for me. And we’ve managed to be able to do it with a very talented young Slovenian cellist, so I am really looking forward to it and I think it’s going to be a great experience.
Erin: You touched on this in the beginning, but I’d like to return to that at the end here and gain a little bit more insight on what you think it takes to be a really good conductor.
Vladimir: Well, it takes a lot of . . . purpose. You have to know what your purpose is. It’s a very demanding profession, a very uncompromising profession. There is one way, in my opinion, to do it effectively. There is one way to do it that works, and it’s magic. I have seen this magic in conductors before, like [Kurt] Masur. It’s amazing. I’ve seen him do things in front of an orchestra that I could not imagine were possible. It’s a transcendence of possibility. Music is very momentary; it’s a fleeting moment. But the remembrance of it is permanent. Anyway, he is a really great example, and to be my mentor, I have learned a lot from him. Thierry Fischer is of exactly the same magnitude, and I’m very happy to work with him here at the Utah Symphony. He’s got the same motivation and the same purity – conducting is really a purity of intent and purpose – and really, I couldn’t ask for more.
You have to know what your purpose is as a human being, and that purpose cannot be in contradiction with what conducting needs. Getting into it, you have to know if you are really willing to give it everything, and for the right reasons. It’s the little things that come along with this profession that really make it worth it the time, because it is a huge time commitment. It takes the right attitude to make everything function correctly. If you are selfish, and if you are an egoist, then that gets in the way. You’re not going to reach where you want to be for yourself, and you’re not going to be able to give that to other people. Thus, not only will you be dissatisfied, you’re also going to leave other people dissatisfied. So, I think it can actually be a really depressing profession if you have the wrong approach.
As a conductor, you are an instrument. At the same time, it’s such a position of authority, so it’s actually a contradiction of itself. You call all the shots, and you’re expected to call all the shots – you have the freedom to do that. But, at the same time, you really are just an instrument, and that is what you have to understand. It’s really your purpose that is calling the shots. It’s like Petrushka, the puppet who comes alive. When you do come alive as a conductor, then it’s great. You cannot remain a puppet and be truly effective in this profession.
Photography by Steven Stone.