Growing up in Yugoslavia was no obstacle to absorbing British culture
Growing up in a Belgrade, Yugoslavia's largest city, a melting pot of Oriental and Russian Slavic influences, you might not expect that my earliest memories were infused with British culture and traditions. It wasn't just the Early Grey tea (loose leaf, of course) and Sundays spent listening to the BBC en famille. When I was five, at one of the Stefanovich's regular family shows, so the story goes, I proudly recited Hamlet's monologue, copying the precise intonation and phrasing from Sir Laurence Olivier's performance on a cassette my father had bought. My father, a journalist by profession and a talented linguist (he spoke seven languages), had a special place in his heart for anything British. I had no idea what I was saying but I thought it sounded grand!
Fast forward 30 years and it's hard to believe that I'm now spending more time in the UK than I am in Yugoslavia this year.
I remember how excited I was when I first met the Philharmonia musicians and maestro Salonen at the Henry Wood Hall in London in 2008 when I flew to the UK for my first major UK orchestral concert to play Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques. I toured with them later that year in Europe, playing in the first half, and then listening to their performance of The Rite of Spring in the second. They played in such a Hitchcockian way that I spent the entire evening in a state of adrenaline overdose. I had to have a musical detox afterwards – I played nothing only slow Bach dances for a week!
The following year (2009) I played the Ravel Left Hand Concerto with them at Gateshead (more French repertoire, but darker this time). I was so happy to be asked perform my childhood favourite, the Mozart K467, in the Royal Festival Hall with one of my childhood inspirations, maestro Ashkenazy this February.
I remember being given a recording of him playing Rachmaninov's Third Concerto when I was 10, which I listened to blissfully every day for a year. Our local Belgrade record shop back then in the 80s stocked only a handful of recordings by Soviet artists. It's hard to imagine that now, when you can access so many recordings at the click of a mouse.
It was bliss again to spend time with him in February this year, along with the Philharmonia, in Mozart world. Somehow the combination of a British orchestra, a Russian-born conductor and a Yugoslav-born soloist felt – at least to me – very Austrian.
It is a privilege to experience so many different faces of the UK musical calendar this year. I'll be at the Aldeburgh Festival again this month (June), performing The Rite of Spring arranged for two pianos alongside Nenad Lečić on the morning of the 22nd, and I'm hoping again to be one of the rare swimmers on the Aldeburgh shore.
And then in August I'll be teaching masterclasses and playing at the Dartington International Summer School. I was there last year for the first time and had great fun taking part in some of the courses as well as teaching. I took a class with Indian tabla artist, Sanju Sahai, who is as much a virtuoso as Horowitz, albeit on a slightly different instrument. But fear not, nobody's published any transcriptions of Ligeti Études for tabla yet. I hope to take part in some more interesting courses this year, including salsa dancing!
In life, as with a good musical piece, one thing leads to another, and so I will be joining my dear friend, the wonderful cellist Natalie Clein, whom I met in Dartington, at the Wigmore Hall on November 17. We're just deciding on the programme now – cooking up the menu! But before that, on October 6, I will be climbing the 20th century's musical Mount Everests for piano (Stockhausen's Klavierstück IX and Boulez's Sonata No 2), as a part of the Southbank's ‘The Rest is Noise Festival’. It is astonishing how much variety you can find in any given decade in the 20th century. It's also astonishing that I am approaching this recital with none of my usual anxieties about whether the public will follow my passion for highly complex musical structures such as the Boulez. Having performed all over the world I've noticed that UK concertgoers seem to have the most omnivorous appetites for different styles of music. It's worth noting that the healthiest people on earth are to be found in Okinawa, the Japanese island, and scientists put this down to their varied diet. I hope to serve up many more challenging menus in the seasons to come.