September 13, 2007

Guitarist Petar Jankovic is not afraid to take on popular classical works.

“Afraid” may sound like a misnomer, but Jankovic said that some of his colleagues have asked him why he includes classical standards in his repertoire.

Musicians can develop esoteric tastes, or focus on little-known but contemporary works. In fact, Jankovic will play “Libra Sontaine” by the contemporary French composer Roland Deyen during his concert Sept. 24 at Assumption College. But also on the program will be works by the beloved Heitor Villa Lobos, the beautiful “Mallorca” by Isaac Albeniz, and “Three Tangos” by Astor Piazzolla, one of the greatest Tango composers of the 20th century.

“Sometimes it takes more courage (to play popular woks),” the Yugoslavian-born Jankovic said. “For me, it’s like an actor tackling Shakespeare. That’s how he shows what he’s made of. They’re there not because they’re easy to play. They’re there because they’re good artistic works.”

Jankovic, 38, has been showing what he is made of as a guitarist since making his professional debut at the age of 16. He has been described as a “rising star” in the classical world, with the Venezuelan composer Luis Zea calling him “a natural poet” of the guitar.

The guitarist sees himself on a mission to “expose people to art.” Playing a standard work at the beginning of a concert can “really create a very good feeling for an enjoyable evening, I hope,” he said. Then when he introduces new works “it communicates very well for the audience.

Now based in the United States, Jankovic teaches at the Indiana University School of Music.

He grew up in Belgrade and had no musical background to speak of, although he said that his late grandfather was a bishop in the Orthodox church. He started playing the guitar when he was 7, and although he picked up an electric guitar as a teenager, he continued with his classical guitar studies. But he was also a good mathematics student, and at high school was torn between pursuing math or music. “I never knew which.”

Then, “suddenly” he did. “I decided suddenly that’s what I’m going to do. They say it’s a calling. It was a brief moment during one summer. It was more of a lifestyle decision. At least that was my image of it. My family accepted that.”

He graduated from the Music Academy in Belgrade and went on to study and teach at Indiana University.

Jankovic is a full-time performer, ranging from 30 to 50 recitals a year. But he considers teaching an important part of that lifestyle. Teaching and performing “feed each other,” he said. “You see what listeners expect. You learn how a listener needs to be touched by a performer. It relaxes me when I teach, especially when the students are talented. I tell the students I’m not teaching, I’m sharing experience.”

Jankovic, who is married with two young children, feels right at home in the U.S. He did from the start. “The United States. Australia and Canada are probably the only countries where you feel at home when you land there. … No matter where you come from you are treated pretty much as equal. Europe really does not have that kind of openness. Here I really felt welcomed as soon as I arrived.”

But this summer he gave an extensive concert tour of Europe. Asked about the differences between Europe and the U.S. with regard to the classical music scene, he noted that here presenters, groups and institutions tend to be privately owned and supported by the community. “Communities organize very well. They take pride in supporting the community. In Europe it is more state driven. If the economy goes bad, things (for the arts) can go bad.”

As a solo performer in the U.S. he said he’s had experiences he probably would not have had in Europe. Here, he’s gone to perform in small towns that may have only one traffic light. Such was the case with one town he visited in Kentucky. After his recital there, Jankovic said a farmer told him he had never been to a classical concert before. “He said he heard about it on the radio and thought, ‘why not?’ ” The farmer then told Jankovic “I enjoyed it a lot.”

“I don’t think it’s happening like that in Europe,” Jankovic said.

“Our role as performing artists is to expose people to the arts. Here I still feel I’m doing pioneering work in cities and rural areas. I think art makes everyone better.”

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