Tatjana Rankovich is a very talented pianist from the former Yugoslavia that now resides in New York City. She is also on the faculty at Mannes School of Music - The New School. Having a mother as a piano teacher was a catalyst for the start of Tatjana's journey in music. After realizing Tatjana's exceptional talent early on, her mom brought her to study with Arbo Valdma, who is recognized as one of Serbia's top piano teachers. This was a great move for her as she began to excel at her recitals and win major piano contests by her early teens. She began to build a nice repertoire of material which featured many Schumann compositions... her favorite composer at the time. Not only did Tatjana have the standards under her command, she began to take an interest in contemporary pieces that were lesser known. This interest would stay with her through her career as she now records and performs works by underappreciated composers such as: Nicolas Flagello, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston and others. After completing her studies at the conservatoire in Novi Sad, Serbia, she would come to the United States to continue to learn. After a short time at North Carolina School of the Arts, Tatjana completed her Masters at Juilliard in New York City. She is now in the process of procuring her Doctorate degree at Rutgers University. Tatjana balances a career of teaching, performing, and recording, and has many projects in the works. I recently talked in depth with her about her career.
R.V.B. - Hello Tatjana... Robert von Bernewitz here... how are you?
T.R. - Hi Robert. I'm fine... how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing good. I'm enjoying this beautiful Long Island weather. I'm sure you are also being that you're in the beautiful village of Bellport.
T.R. - We are so lucky, it's just absolutely gorgeous.
R.V.B. - Do you usually spend your summers there?
T.R. - No. Actually, I'm usually in Europe. I had some things to do in the US and my very good friend Deborah Birnbaum, who is a singer and a voice teacher (years ago Deb and I had most memorable concert tours in Italy and Malta so we go way back) is in Italy and they have this really beautiful house in Bellport. My husband and I are babysitting their dog and watching over things and it all worked out.
R.V.B. - I presume they have a piano there.
T.R. –Of course, they do have a piano. I have auditioned a couple of students who want to come to Mannes in September... they live in Bellport and Southampton. Bellport is beautiful but something I'm not so used to is the wildlife. There are deer on their property and lots of birds, bugs and occasional non-poison snakes.
R.V.B. - Have you seen any fox?
T.R. - Yes. They have this beautiful beach that a ferry takes you to and it's totally wild... Fire Island. There's nothing out there and last week there was a fox wandering around. It's very pristine and wild.
R.V.B. - It's a whole different scene than New York City right?
T.R. - Very much so.
R.V.B. - When you very a young girl in Serbia did you have wildlife over there?
T.R. - Different wildlife. (Haha) I was in Belgrade, which in a way strikes me like a small New York City. It has different neighborhoods. It's not clean everywhere. (Haha) It has a certain diversity and whenever I talk about Belgrade, it reminds me of Istanbul meets Prague. It's a crossroad between the Austro Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. There were all of these opposite influences there. When I was growing up, it was Yugoslavia, which doesn't exist anymore. So it was a country that was encompassing Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Slovenia, all as one country that later on fell apart. There was also duality in this country where we were influenced equally by Russia and America. The TV was showing all of these American movies that I was very influenced by. It was a main source for me to learn English. I would watch the movies and try to emulate and imitate the accent. Musically and artistically, there was a very strong Russian influence. There were several artists from the Moscow Conservatory, including my piano teacher, that were all based in Belgrade. He was married at the time to a famous Serbian violinist.
R.V.B. - What was the name of your piano teacher?
T.R. - Arbo Valdma. He is one of the most renowned pedagogues now based in Cologne, Germany where he is on the faculty at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln. A phenomenal mind, spirit, wisdom and is one of the most brilliant and dedicated pedagogues. I feel really lucky to have had him as my teacher. He was my piano guru for many, many years. We are still in touch and more like colleagues now. He is inspirational.
R.V.B. - Did you start out taking lessons from your mother?
T.R. - Yes. My mother was my first piano teacher... first influence. I quickly moved on to study with Valdma because it never really works working with family. I wasn't very diligent with her. I loved going to concerts with her, listening to music with her but we used to argue around the piano. She knew me to well. I loved performing but I didn't like to practice... as with most kids. My mom was also a dancer as well as a piano teacher. My main professional influence was Valdma, who I studied with until I came to the States. But my mom was the one who supported all my decisions, who gave me the strength to keep moving on and who stood by me every time. She is still the best mom.
T.R. - When I was about 11 years old I became obsessed with the Grieg Piano Concerto. I started to practice it on my own and I somehow learned it. Besides Grieg, my favorite composer was Schumann. He remained very much in my heart. The harmonic language and his incredible romanticism, and his style, somehow relates to me. There's dualism in his music. I always come back to that word. Whenever I didn't know what to learn next, I would go back to Schumann. So before I reached the age of 25, my repertoire of Schumann included his Fantasie, op. 17, Kreisleriana, Faschingsschwankaus Wein, Fantasiestucke, Kinderszenen, Carnaval, Op.9, Symphonic Etudes, Op.13, all of these major works. My recitals usually included a piece by Schumann.
R.V.B. - I know that you had entered a lot of competitions and were very successful at them. What would you say was your first performance where you really came out and entered the professional world?
T.R. - It was probably the 1st competition where I won a unanimous vote for the 1st prize. It was when I was 12... in Belgrade and it was a national competition. I played a Sonatina by Schumann in G Major and several other works. I was not a professional of course but somehow deep in my heart I knew that I wanted to become a professional. There was no end in sight from that point on. As I continued to learn with Valdma, and while studying at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad - which was considered the best in the country at the time - I did many performances at the radio station and at that time I considered myself a professional.
R.V.B. - Did you do any regional traveling and performing while you were in school?
T.R. – Yes, I did around Yugoslavia and I went to Switzerland when I was 17 to perform at the Tibor Varga summer festival in Sion. That's where I met my next teacher Clifton Matthews. He was on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He was hugely positive and inspirational as a musician, teacher and person and had a great sense of humor and love for all arts. We somehow made a plan and I decided to come to the States with a scholarship to that school. So I went there to continue my studies. I stayed in North Carolina for 5 months and it was a great experience. It was a transition for me and I am still biased to North Carolina. I love that state and it was kind of my home away from home. I met the most incredible people there and some are still like family to me. Eventually I had decided to go to New York to the Juilliard School. I felt that North Carolina was a transition and I felt that it did not offer the highly competitive environment that I was craving. In some ways I had that in Belgrade, where there was a whole pleiad of young talented pianists. We were all very competitive. I would describe it to being like Romanian Gymnasts. We were competing and being groomed into this profession. When I came to Carolina everybody was impressed with my playing, but I was just 19 years old and I knew that I still needed to learn things. I wasn't ready to stop learning and studying. As wonderful as everybody was, I craved an even more critical aspect that I thought was necessary. It's a very hard thing for people to swallow but that's the deal of this profession. You need to examine... re-examine... strip down... dig deep and analyze your playing - and your presentation. I wanted to move on and so I came to New York. The first moment when I arrived in New York, I immediately felt the speed. People had no time and no patients. Juilliard was all about being competitive, having high standards and practicing for hours. It was a great challenge but it was often painful too.
R.V.B. - It took a lot of work I'm sure. Who did you study with at Juilliard?
T.J. - At Juilliard I studied with the legendary Josef Raieff. I loved to watch him play and those were the most cherished moments. He came from that incredible old school of piano playing (as did Rachmaninoff and Josef Lhevinne). After Juilliard, I studied with Benjamin Kaplan in London. Whenever I had concerts in Europe I would go over to London for an intense week of lessons. He used to come to NY too, where he had a huge following and lots of pianists who coached with him. In some ways he was considered Juilliard's ghost teacher. He was incredibly influential to my playing and my being as a musician. He had the most natural musicality and the clearest way of teaching it. It was almost uncanny. He passed four years ago and I miss him tremendously. He was a brilliant teacher and a musician and human being. He was like a second father to me.
R.V.B. - You found yourself moving towards American Composers in your repertoire, was Juilliard a catalyst for this?
T.R. - That's interesting because even though I mentioned my love for Schumann, I always had this second passion that was lurking throughout my childhood, and this was discovering new things and presenting lesser-known works. At that time I discovered some Yugoslav composers. I also remember performing Poulenc's Aubade, which is a piece for piano and 18 instruments.(winds, timpani and viola/cello/bass). I performed that with the Zagreb Philharmonic. That was something that was perhaps never played there at that time - it wasn't a mainstream piece. I was very interested in contemporary pieces like the Swiss composer Frank Martin... I played his preludes. Then I came here and I discovered new composers. I discovered Ned Rorem... I discovered Virgil Thompson... and their pieces really stood out to me. I developed a great passion for the American sound. In my mind the harmonies of open 5th's remind me of open spaces and serenity. From Ned Rorem, to Virgil Thompson and Copeland, I ventured into other American composers. Along the way I met Walter Simmons who is a great friend of mine now. He is a musicologist and the author of 2 fantastic and very important books, "Voices in the Wilderness" and "Voices of Stone and Steel". He was the one who introduced me to the music of Nicolas Flagello, Vittorio Giannini, Paul Creston, Peter Mennin... He calls them in his book "The American Traditionalists". They are the composers who did not stray from traditional forms and those who carried the traditional harmonic and structural language. The most famous one of them was and still is, Samuel Barber. Flagello and Giannini were very active at different schools of music, such as Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. Giannini was a professor at Juilliard as well as President of The North Carolina School of the Arts, which I didn't know that when I was down there. It was interesting to discover that later on. Giannini and Creston were all very prominent teachers and authors of articles and theoretical papers. This includes Walter Piston who wrote books on harmony and counterpoint. They somehow were never associated with the mainstream composers in this country, which is totally unfair. But many things are unfair… Flagello was an amazing visual artist too – a great painter.
T.R. –Exactly. At that time, you had serialism and Schoenberg with his school, which led to composers like Milton Babbitt and his followers. Then the minimalist school came along with people like Philip Glass and his followers. Walter Simmons introduced me to Flagello's piano concertos that were never recorded. I fell in love with these pieces and consequently recorded them. Flagello’s Third Piano Concerto is a masterpiece.
R.V.B. - I saw on Youtube that you performed a piece by Lois Vierk.
T.R. - Lois Vierk's piece, "To Stare Astonished at the Sea" is one of my favorite works to play. I've performed it at the Keys to the Future Festival in NYC a few years ago. Not easy to handle because one plays entirely inside the piano so reaching the strings, pounding and plucking exact pitches and holding the pedal down can be a challenge. I had to take my shoes off in order to balance my foot on the pedal and have a full extension as well as the reach of the inside piano-harp. But the piece is mesmerizing and great fun to play. It is very spiritual.
R.V.B. - So in your performances throughout your career, you've played at a lot of fine venues. Are there any performances that stand out for you?
T.R. - Yes. There are some that stand out more than others. Sometimes they can happen in smaller venues and unexpected places. I often think that not just for me but for many other artists, sometimes the most beautiful poignant performances happen in these smaller concert halls... more intimate places. It could be because of feeling less pressure but there are many reasons. A concert has to have a perfect storm of events for it to be special. We strive to find magic when we perform and unfortunately it doesn't always happen. When it does happen, it is sublime. We live for that brief moment when you feel that you are one with the work... the composer... with the audience... with the piano... with the stage... and everything comes together.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me a few places that you have performed overseas?
T.R. - I loved the piano and the stage at the Philharmonic Hall in Kosice Slovakia. It was just a fantastic place to play. That is where 2 of my Flagello concertos were recorded. The concert hall in Belgrade called Kolarac has a beautiful stage. It's has very special acoustics and a special feeling... maybe because it's in Belgrade, my home town. I had some really wonderful performances there, including a performance many years ago of the Mozart D minor concerto, of which I made a live CD recording. I consider that one of the special live performances in my career. Last year I started my own concert series "Music and More". There was a wonderful space in Tribeca - in the basement of the now closed City Hall restaurant, called "The Granite Room". That room exuded a lot of magic. In Sion Switzerland, the Conservatory Chapel at the Music Academy was a special concert hall and it was a wonderful place to play. The Palacio da Cidade in Rio de Janeiro I loved, and I adored the fantastic Mediterranean Conference Center in Valletta, Malta. Several theaters around Sicily were fabulous too. I also had many wonderful concerts at the Harriet Theater in West Palm Beach.
R.V.B. - Your husband is a composer and he is also from the former Yugoslavia. Did you meet him there?
T.R. - No, we didn't meet there. He is 3 1/5 years older than me and he was a composition student at the Belgrade Conservatoire. We met in New York in 2005... it's an interesting story. I had a program from 1980 of a recital by the pianist Alexis Weissenberg who played a concert in Belgrade. After the performance I talked to him back stage and I told him that I was following him in his footsteps by going to Juilliard and I also wanted to see if I could play for him. He wrote a few words of good luck and best wishes on this program for me.Years later, I had this program next to my piano in New York. My husband saw it the first time he came to my apartment and he said, "I remember being at that concert". 30 years ago we were at the same concert. Soon after that concert, I came to the States and he went to the Conservatoire in Paris to continue his composition studies. Then years later in 2004, there was an invitation from a producer in Belgrade, who had asked me to record several pieces of composers from the former Yugoslavia, but who are presently living in other places around the world. My husband (Ionel Petroi) was one of them. All of these composers kept sending me their scores. I had to decide which ones I wanted to record. Ionel sent me his suite "The Music of Marrying and Burying.” His music sounded so fresh, different and gutsy. He is one of those rare composers who does not sound like anybody else. He also has so much humor in his music, which is very hard to achieve. So, he said that a few months later he'll be in New York for a concert of his music. I attended this concert and we met. That was in 2005. For a couple of years after that we were back and forth between New York and Paris trying to decide who was going to move where. Because Ionel also composed music for a number of French movies we thought that it would be a good opportunity for him come to the States. We all know that this is the greatest country of movies and that we have this huge Hollywood tradition. We thought it would be good if he had an opportunity to explore this side of the Atlantic.
T.R. –We always find a way, we are very organized. Ionel is also a pianist, he was a professional double bass musician but his first instrument was the accordion. It's not always easy for me to play his pieces because he is such a good pianist. When he plays his works, they sound different. His playing is less stylized and in a way, a little more raw. He is also a fantastic jazz pianist, so his touch is different. For me, I have to remain very true to my own taste and style to kind of stand up to him (Haha). I have my own interpretations of his works and I often say, “when I play your music it comes out better than when you do.“(Haha) But, it really is just different and it’s fascinating to hear this difference.
R.V.B. - It's like a friendly competition?
T.R. - Exactly... a friendly competition. Sometimes we do play 4 hands. We had some concerts where we played 4 hand works. It's fun. But we also love to listen to music together. Very often with dinner, we pick a composer and listen to several of his works, which can take many dinners actually. It is great to listen to music this way – all of Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s Symphonies, Tchaikovsky, Ockeghem, Berlioz, Mozart, Bernstein and on and on.
R.V.B. – You are an educator. When did you first start at Mannes and how do you enjoy sharing your knowledge with students?
T.R. - I started teaching back in 1990. I love to teach. It's a whole other approach and a different energy. It's a different talent. There is a lot of psychology that has to go into dealing with other individuals... with children and with different age groups. I teach all generations. I know how to transfer my knowledge and how to approach my students, how to help them musically, technically and psychologically. To teach them how to practice... how to see this process. It's not just simply playing the piano, it's how you get ready to even practice. Then once you practice, how do you get ready to perform the piece for the first time. From that first time, how do you get ready to perform it on the big stage... small stage... or any stage... in front of 5 people or 10 people. There are all of these different stages and it's important to know how to transfer that knowledge.
R.V.B. - I'm sure a lot goes into it and it's very challenging. Now music has a lot of power. It can calm world tensions... help heal tragedies... it cures people's health issues. I understand you do some work in the Wellness field. Is there a difference in approach in that field as to teaching?
T.R. - Psychology is important as far as wellness also. I use it for my older students who have different issues, but when I think about it, we all have issues. Performance anxiety is an example. I strongly believe that teaching has a very strong psychological component that has to be involved. You're dealing with other individuals and we all have a different mindset, fears, and doubts. I recommend that beautiful book "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey. It relates to that. The performance part... the practicing part... the execution part... the myself part... the inner critic that needs to be befriended and tamed so that we can do our best.
R.V.B. - What do you have going on these days? Do you have any performances coming up?
T.R. - I have a very interesting projects coming up. I have a recording scheduled for next summer. This is a very special recording of 3 two-piano concertos that I will be recording with my pianist - friend Allison Brewster Franzetti. We are doing this with the conductor Gerard Schwartz. The concertos are by Giannini, Creston, and Pasatieri. The idea has matured and we are learning these works. Two of the three are premieres. We will then start rehearsing and the recordings will hopefully happen next summer in North Carolina with Jerry Schwartz's Eastern Music Festival Orchestra.
T.R. - Yes. A huge amount of preparation! Another interesting project I'm involved with is, 4 years ago I decided to go back to school... not that I didn't have enough to do... I decided to go back and get my Doctorate degree and I’ve been doing that at Rutgers. Actually, my friend Allison Brewster Franzetti, who has her DMA from Rutgers persuaded me and also, Daniel Epstein, a wonderful pianist and teacher who had also studied with Benjamin Kaplan teaches there (Allison has also studied with Ben Kaplan) so it felt like a full circle. I was interested in a more academic approach and wanted to do more research with my American composers. That was initially what I had in mind. Somehow along the way I met Professor Douglas Johnson who is one of the most important scholars on Beethoven. He researched Beethoven's sketches and produced a very important book about them. He is now my mentor and got me into researching this very incredible subject, which is the title of my thesis. The subject is Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto and its unpublished piano revisions.But there is part 2 and involves two different chamber versions. An earlier string quintet arrangement that Beethoven may have been involved with, and a later one, also for a string quintet transcribed very differently by Lachner. I am going to be presenting the concerto with the revised solo parts and with the string quintet. The piano revisions were all done by Beethoven and we suddenly have the concerto that we know so well but which is very much changed and takes on a very different character. It's totally fresh and it fits into what I've been doing all my life with discovering new pieces and playing lesser-known works. Even though Beethoven is one of the most well known composers and the 4th Piano Concerto is one of the most famous of all of piano concertos, it's a different side of the coin because the concerto is an altered version, known but unknown, old but new.
R.V.B. - That's very interesting. Where will this performance take place?
T.R. - I will be performing it at Rutgers University @ Mason Gross. I'm finalizing the musicians that I need for the performance and it will happen sometime in February or March. I'm thrilled because I did play a number of Beethoven sonatas and concertos, but never the 4th Concerto. It has been an interesting journey and amazing process doing this research and discovering so much about this composer... his creative methods. There were many idiosyncrasies in this concerto... plus finding these revisions that totally changed the character of the piece. It's very cool.
T.R. - When I have a lot of concerts, projects, or programs, I practice every day - sometimes to the point where my fingers hurt. Last year, when I had many different programs and it was one thing after the other, I practiced 6 or 7 hours a day. I have to maintain a teaching schedule as well, so it can be tough. Other times I don't have such a rigorous schedule, so I can devote my time to learning pieces. Right now, I decided to postpone a few things because I need to concentrate on the upcoming piano concertos.
R.V.B. - Enjoy the rest of your week on Long Island... your walks and the nature.
T.R. - Nature is good.
R.V.B. - I appreciate the insight of your career that you shared with me. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
T.R. - Thank you Robert.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Tatjana Rankovich visit her website. www.tatjanarankovich.com
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