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Renowned cellist recalls musical journey onto world stage

Cellist Maja Bogdanovic performs Saturday and Sunday with the Spokane Symphony. (Spokane Symphony / Courtesy)
Cellist Maja Bogdanovic performs Saturday and Sunday with the Spokane Symphony. (Spokane Symphony / Courtesy)

Originally from Yugoslavia and currently based in France, Maja Bogdanovic is a world-renowned cellist who will be performing with the Spokane Symphony this weekend.

Bogdanovic will be featured on Cello Concerto in E Minor by English composer Edward Elgar, a piece that she says carries an emotional significance. We spoke to Bogdanovic via email from her home in Paris, touching on everything from her approach to music, her youth in war-torn Yugoslavia and the importance of music education.

The Spokesman-Review: What is your musical background? When did you start playing music?

Bogdanovic: I was very fortunate to start playing cello at an early age in a specialized music school in Yugoslavia, my home country. Even though my parents are physicians rather than musicians, music was cherished in our family so much that my earliest memories involve concert experiences. When I was 16, I started to study at the Paris National Superior Conservatory with professor Michel Strauss. I did my postgraduate studies there, as well as in Berlin at the University of Arts.

SR: What specifically drew you to the cello?

Bogdanovic: Honestly, it was so early and in the realm of the subconscious that I cannot remember. All I can say is that I knew it, and there was not even a decision-making process involved, which helped me pursue it with uncompromising resolve.

SR: I see that your touring schedule takes you all over the world. What’s it like being able to perform with orchestras in various countries?

Bogdanovic: It is truly wonderful. Music exists in an infinite space (that) is only accessed through the sharing of ideas and emotion, and therefore I love collaborating with many different orchestras from various cultures of our world. Even though music is our true universal language, every culture has its distinctive character.

SR: Is there anything historically or aesthetically significant about the Elgar concerto? Do you have a personal history with the piece or the composer?

Bogdanovic: Very much so! The concerto was written just after the destruction of WWI, and it is a painful lament toward a lost world. The message is especially relevant in today’s world, as it serves as a profound reminder to humanity not to repeat the same irreversible mistake. However, it teaches us to be resolutely optimistic. … My connection to it is personal, since I grew up in Yugoslavia during the 10-year Civil War. It was this concerto and its message of hope … that helped me get through. I enjoy sharing our mutual personal victory every time I play it for audiences around the world.

SR: What is your approach when learning a new piece of music? Is there anything specific you do to get into the mind of the composer?

Bogdanovic: My approach is much (like) that of an actor who not only has to learn and memorize his or her part but has to understand the whole play. … Reading about the lives of the composers we perform is not only essential but necessary, as we can then relate to the part of their life which brought about the creation of the work. Of course, all this is irrelevant if you approach the task with insufficient technical and musical preparation. So it is our duty to also work on ourselves and develop effortless technique for the brilliant delivery of the pieces we play.

SR: You’ll also be conducting a master class while you’re in Spokane. Is this something you commonly do, and if so, why do you think they are important to music education?

Bogdanovic: I don’t teach full time, but every time that I have an opportunity to teach a master class, I tremendously enjoy it. My philosophy is that we are defined by what we leave behind in this world, and therefore it is necessary to share our ideas and experiences with young people and help them become better than we are.