Looking back at Tamara Stefanovich’s September schedule, you see a multifaceted artist at work: She played Stravinsky twice with an all-star lineup at Musikfest Berlin, gave a duo recital with Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Amsterdam, and a solo recital in Regensburg, Germany, with a program of seldom-heard works by Scriabin, Roslavets, and Szymanowski. She also played with an avant-garde jazz quartet in Germany and the Czech Republic. This last month of concerts set the stage for an equally diverse range of programming for the rest of Stefanovich’s 2021-22 season. 

Tamara Stefanovich grew up in what was then Yugoslavia (now Serbia). At 13, she began to study piano—along with psychology, sociology, and pedagogy—in Belgrade. Due to the Balkan War, she continued those studies in the United States with a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her livelihood was determined by that scholarship; in Belgrade, she’d really wanted to study literature. 

Stefanovich has the remarkable ability to call out crises and injustices frankly, while also radiating optimism, warmth, and curiosity from her core. She even manages to see the positive side of my unstable internet connection, which forces us to switch from video chat to a regular phone call: Without a picture, Stefanovich believes, you can express yourself more precisely.  

VAN: What is important to you when you make a program? 

Tamara Stefanovich: Every concert is a team effort: the presenter, the acoustics, the piano, the piano technician, the audience, and I—we’re all equally important. And above all of us is the composer. A program has to be tailor-made; for me, art can only be essential if it’s done in this way. Otherwise it’s just a mass-produced product that’s copied over and over again. 

So far, I’ve worked with presenters who have grown used to my gluttonous appetite for everything. At the Barbican, I did a three-part recital with 50 etudes in just one day, but they were the opposite of what people normally think of as etudes: no gushing late Romantic virtuosity, no Chopin, no Liszt. It was all etudes from the 20th and 21st centuries. It was a prism of the possibilities represented by these miniature piano studies. I’m doing something similar in London in February with 20 sonatas. I’m not going to play Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, because they’re already over-represented. Instead, I want to show how an old form with a rigid structure enriched itself in the Baroque, 20th, and 21st centuries, and how it can be filled with life.

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How do presenters react to these programs?

They know me by now. [Laughs.] It’s no longer a surprise. It’s always important to me to be in direct contact with the presenter. I love my agency, but the artistic decisions are really mine alone. I’ll call the presenter, ask them about the theme of the festival, the acoustics of the space, which pieces they haven’t heard on a program yet… That’s why I don’t have to persuade them. I don’t even have to persuade the audience. Those who come, come for the program, not to see some kind of beautiful photograph brought to life. 

Of course, my appetite for the works—what I’m most excited about now—also plays a role. If a piece doesn’t animate me, then I can’t do the same for the piece. With every work I perform, there has to be a compelling desire to play that specific piece. Often, it’s based in a need I have to link works together, which also arises from my desire to communicate, to show that pieces come from a family of composers. There’s the Beethoven-Bartòk side, or there’s the Liszt-Chopin family… It’s interesting to show that no one is alone, like some heavenly body revolving only around itself. All composers belong to the same galaxy. That’s very important, especially right now when we are all hyper-communicative yet profoundly isolated.

You also often give introductions to your concerts. What about that is important to you? 

I’m not one of those musicians who always says, “You can’t put it into words.” As an arts enthusiast, I believe you have to wrestle with the vocabulary. You can’t withdraw into a totally abstract world that can only be conveyed through instinct and a few nice gestures. You can demonstrate a few sample passages before the concert, so that everyone feels spoken to when the piece is actually played. That feeling, this psychological effect of, “I’ve experienced this before,” lodges itself into the brain–so that you don’t have a sense of immediate danger. 

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Besides pre-concert introductions, I’ve read that you talk with audiences a lot. 

Yes, it wasn’t always like that. It’s definitely important to master the instrument; you have to be able to drive this Ferrari without endangering yourself or the audience. But I learned piano in an Eastern Bloc bootcamp. At the time and in that pedagogy, there was also this goal that one should strive for an ideal result. Because of that, you took this sort of athletic approach to preparing a work, where every detail was planned out. Seven years ago, I was lucky enough to have a son, and since then everything has been chaos—a wonderful, abundant chaos. That taught me an awful lot. 

It’s just like grappling with avant-garde free jazz. Christopher Dell, Jonas Westergaard, and Christian Lillinger asked me if we could improvise together. At first I thought, No, I can’t do that. I can’t improvise. But this is a jazz that’s more in line with the new music currently being composed. You can’t plan out every detail there, either. We wouldn’t say that we were rehearsing [as a jazz quartet]. We play together every now and then, and then meet up onstage. But there’s no end product that we’re striving for. There’s no threat of optimization, or the constant thought of, Is this good enough? After our first concert in Cologne, I asked my colleagues directly: “Was it OK?” And they were completely bewildered. “We’ve never asked ourselves that question. We played. That’s that.” That’s so liberating. When you play works by others, you start with an absolute responsibility for that work. But you also have to free the piece—free it from the traditions of interpretation, but also free it from the neuroses that we all have. [Laughs.]

How did your work with the jazz quartet come about? 

It was one of those subliminal acts of fate. Someone coming up to me and saying, “Improvise something” was what scared me the most. I was immediately dripping with sweat. But I’ve always found that, if something scares you, you have to lean into it. 

The trio had seen me at Musikfest [in Berlin] playing works by Boulez and Stockhausen. And they were crazy enough—and thought that I was crazy enough—to ask me. They are also fans of this musical period. As a quartet, we’re all driven by music of a certain structure and, at the same time, a sense of futurism in the best sense of the word. We started making music together right away, and I felt like a fish out of water. Whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Does improvising change your approach to works that don’t use improvisation? 

I don’t think so. In life, there are so many factors that change you. It’s not like in American films where there is always a climax—a moment, a word—that changes everything. That’s a bit over-simplified for me. But I believe in an archaic power that comes from within and opens you up to change. That’s the most important thing for me, both as a person and an artist. I’m not interested in the kind of artists who have no desire to evolve, even if doing so could make them great.  

Improvisation came at the exact moment when almost everything in my life was changing: where I lived and with whom, how I saw myself in society… I really had to reinvent myself, which came with an incredible amount of fear of losing something, despair, anxiety. It was like a large tsunami that upended everything that was on the ground. It led to new things. I don’t know how long I’ll continue doing those things, but I feel that, for the first time, there’s no end in sight when it comes to my creativity. That sounds very grand. [Laughs.]

Do you get nervous before concerts with the jazz combo in a different way than before classical concerts? 

I’m always like a kid. There’s a great photo of me from my first solo recital at age seven. I walked onto the stage so quickly that I’m all blurry. That comes from an overwhelming endorphin rush; I can’t wait to communicate with the audience. In this jazz group, I feel like a cheeky child that’s allowed to do whatever she wants and has no desire to be well-behaved. In fact, I haven’t felt the desire to be well-behaved in any part of my musical life. It’s not that I’m interested in doing something solely to provoke or manipulate; I have zero interest in taking on a persona. It’s more like what Jean Cocteau said: “Dance must express nothing.” I like that a lot. It’s not true, but it has this impertinence that I like. 

Does that also apply to classical concerts? 

“Classical music,” like “jazz,” is a term that’s so incredibly loaded with stereotypes and expectations. I don’t want anyone to expect anything from me. 

I started studying piano at the university level when I was 13, but I also pursued other subjects at an early age. Playing the piano is not the only way in which I see myself. And that’s how it’s always been: I’m an outsider who looks in from the outside, and sometimes I also play normal piano concerts. [Laughs.] That’s not being overly modest. I just like to look at things from the outside. When Kirill Petrenko hired me to play Mozart in Israel—which was great—the first thing I asked him was, “Why me with Mozart?” Perhaps he thought, as I do, that with Mozart, you can see everything like an X-ray. 

I simply love to fly back and forth between dissimilar kinds of music, waiting to see what happens, what comes next.

I’ve read that your piano training was very comprehensive, a lot of breathing, yoga, dance, meditation… What exactly did that consist of?

My teacher was a passionate pedagogue, something that I see less and less of nowadays. She had an absolute sense of responsibility to the music and taught us that, before you get to the instrument, you have to prepare your body, your mind, and your inner ear. I prepared a lot with her mentally, even as a very small child. She didn’t put it in those exact words, but she did convey that the honor of handling an instrument must be earned through a certain kind of preparation. That sounds very culty. [Laughs.] But it was just about creating a very special space in which you played very special works by very special people. I’ve also brought this special energy into my everyday life, and since then I no longer feel like I have an everyday life. Everything has a kind of importance. I also learned exercises to prepare the body so that it doesn’t become cramped. Today, I often see great colleagues struggling with the instrument, sometimes with great results. But this combativeness, this wanting to control the instrument, is a bit of a shame; instead of liberating the sound and the instrument, you feel you have to dominate them. 

You came to Germany after studying at Curtis, where your scholarship was frozen due to sanctions against Serbia. How did you continue? 

That was catastrophic. I was 17 when I finished my bachelor’s degree, and 19 when I finished my master’s. I wanted to live in Germany after that, but my only chance to get a visa was a student visa. I came to Germany with a full German Academic Exchange Service scholarship and lots of extra funding. Then Germany imposed sanctions against Serbia due to the Balkan Wars. You have to understand, I am a real ex-Yugoslav: My mom is from Croatia, my dad is from Serbia, we have Italian and Hungarian heritage. Suddenly my life became smaller. With the end of Yugoslavia, I needed a visa for every country. Many concerts were off, and I couldn’t go to competitions because I couldn’t get a visa. I had no money. I lived on 300 German Marks a month [about $400 in 2021 dollars—Ed.], lived in student housing for years, only ate once a day. That sounds like a sob story, but it’s not.

Being in Germany when Belgrade was bombed in 1999 was difficult. I love German culture and the language, and I was inspired to see how Germany reinvented itself after World War II. I wanted to live in this country and understand how that could work out. And then being here during the Balkan Wars, there was an explosion of ambiguity in every nook and cranny. 

I really don’t want to offend anyone, but unfortunately I have to say that three of my professors at the Cologne University of Music pointed at me and said, “All Serbs are like animals!” And yet in spite of that—or perhaps because of that—I’ve always insisted that there is no such thing as a simple version of what a country is. I don’t see those statements as a sign that Germany on the whole is dysfunctional. 

On Facebook, you posted a photo of the work “World as Lover, World as Self,” which Liza Lim composed for you, and tagged it #workingmoms. Is there a movement or alliance for working mothers in classical music? 

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: I would like to have a bit more of a sense of community among mothers and, in the music industry, a greater awareness of how a mother can also be a performer. 

What is the awareness and the support structure like in the music industry for someone working as both a musician and a mother? 

There are no such structures at all.  We’re all just trying to make it through somehow. In concert life, there are few who’ll say, “We’ll take care of the babysitter.” It’s the same for male colleagues who travel alone with children. 

For these complex questions, there are no simple answers, no guidelines. It’s also not a question that can be answered well in an interview, because there are so many perspectives and perceptions. But you have to talk about it, about how to deal with it. 

You started working with new music in your mid-20s. Why so late? 

The institutions where I’d studied up until then were limited to music that was 200 to 300 years old. I find that difficult. Not everyone has to play new music, but you have to at least know it. It’s ridiculous that thousands of students are trained at German music academies who take their exams but never learn a piece by Stockhausen. Or in the exams there’s just one new music work and it’s almost always the same: a Ligeti etude or a piece by Arvo Pärt that’s three minutes long. Nothing against these composers, quite the contrary. But it’s astounding that people are so out of touch with their own time. 

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I find that really impractical, and that’s why I’ve only been teaching as a visiting professor lately. I can’t stand this willful resistance to change on the part of institutions, along with the lack of political debate. I’ve definitely gotten angrier over the years. 

You teach a lot of new music in your masterclasses, right? 

This isn’t new music, Ligeti and Boulez piano works. Some are 70 years old! Just this week, I was playing two works by Stravinsky with Musikfest Berlin when someone said, “Ach, this New Music.” How is this new? The pieces are 100 years old! Have we become so passive that we close ourselves off from any non-simplified form of art? I don’t get it. 

You mentioned in one masterclass how funny Ligeti is. Can you explain? 

Take as an example Ligeti’s third etude, “Touches Bloquées”—“blocked keys.” He blocked three keys with his left hand. And the right hand plays a chromatic line [sings fast chromatic lines up and down] like “Flight of the Bumblebee,” as typical a virtuoso gesture as can be. But the blocked keys make you sound like someone stammering. Nevertheless, you can see the musician drenched in sweat playing these thousands of notes. 

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In the mid-section, before the coda, there is also a moment that sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky, with octaves that are also played in a stubborn manner and corrupted by additional seconds. Like a Vermeer, with a few more daubs of color. If you play it right, it sounds wrong. There’s a double, triple ambiguity between what the musician wants and what the audience expects. Whose expectations are you laughing at, the musician’s or the audience’s? I think that’s brilliant. It’s this typical Central or Eastern European type of humor that’s always both directed against yourself and against others. As an interpreter, I’m exposed, and I think that’s great. [Laughs.

Does the audience laugh when you play that in concert? 

When people come to my concerts, they aren’t expecting to see a woman in a long gown playing something they already know in a way they already know—far from it. We often laugh together. 

Performers today take themselves far too seriously. The composers should be the real heroes. I always want to laugh at Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” too. It’s so 19th-century, how can you play these heroic gestures in the 20th or 21st centuries, after two world wars? How decoupled do you have to be from social issues to do that? Nothing against Liszt, on the contrary, he was a great man, a European who helped so many of his colleagues. More so than Chopin, for example. But the piece is a product of its time. 

You often emphasize that, for you, the programs and especially the composers should be the focus, not the soloists—especially when they’re big stars. Do you actually like to give interviews? 

[Laughs.] Right, it’s really completely antithetical! But my father worked as a journalist, which is why journalism is so important to me. And I’m happy when I can use an interview to recommend other artists and perhaps a few people listen to their works as a result. 

So which artists would you recommend? 

The composer I’m into most of all right now is Milica Djordjević: a keen intellect paired with a completely wild instinct. 

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Or Vassos Nicolaou, whom I’ve commissioned to write 15 Etudes and a four-hand piece that I hope to release on CD soon. 

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Neither of them take themselves too seriously, but their work is all the more serious for it. I’m really excited for Liza Lim’s piano concerto. I’m still stuck in the middle of the labyrinth, so I can’t say what it will be like. But that’s also a good feeling. ¶