In Tones of Sensitive Elegance: Xenia Jankovic

Xenia Jankovic has been what’s called a Bestandteil at the Musikdorf Ernen summer festival for many years. I hate to call her a “permanent fixture” inasmuch as her lust for life, enthusiasm, and youthful energies defy that translation of the term. But again this year as Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Plus series, July 31 − August 13, she, more than any other, determines the chamber artists’ repertoire and programming that will be performed under this year’s “Limitless” theme. She kindly consented to a short interview for this blog on the day before the chamber week’s opening concert.

Welcome back to Ernen, Xenia. What is it that has drawn you here for so many years?
The magic of the place, I think. The first time was for György Sebők’s master classes thirty years ago, thirty years ago. That marked a turning point in my life, at which time music and the way I approached it took on a different much as possible in the programming and choice of musicians for the chamber week.

Ordinarily, you teach cello at The University of Music Detmold in northern Germany. What is it about that teaching that speaks to you?
I love teaching. It is, of course, a huge responsibility. You shape the voice of every student in one way or another, sometimes even having to jump over your own shadow to prepare him or her best for a certain kind of exam or audition. But I have a real sense of commitment there, an allegiance to my students that is very strong. And to think I hold the same position in Detmold today as André Navarra held in the days I was studying with him is a great honor.

What made you decide to become a musician yourself?
My parents were both professional musicians, my Serbian father, a conductor, and my Russian mother, a pianist. The languages of music and culture were always in the foreground in our home. I was born in Nis, Serbia, but went on to study in Moscow, turning down another scholarship I had been awarded at Julliard in New York. At the time, it just felt like the spirit of music for me as a cellist was more fitting in the East –studying with Mstislav Rostropovich’s and hoping to carry on his legacy were that important. Later, I came to Geneva to study with Pierre Fournier.

And your mentors from there?
Clearly Sebők and Sándor Végh. But my first real chamber music experience was even earlier. Gidon Kremer had invited me to come to “his” festival in Lockenhaus, Austria, when I was about 25 years old. I had been primed, you see − and had been rehearsing – for a solo career primarily; but then suddenly at Lockenhaus, and later, at other smaller festivals – such as Végh’s Prussia Cove in the UK and the Kuhmo festival in Finland – I found a way to communicate in chamber work and grew to value its very different dynamic. The intense musical interaction with others a true inspiration, and was fortunate to have the guidance of truly great masters as I was exploring it.

Tell us about your instrument. Is it one you purchased or one you took on “in safe keeping” for a foundation or benefactor?
Oh no, I bought my cello myself. It is an Italian instrument, much like a Montagnana, but not, in fact, a Montagnana; the maker was Gregorio Antoniazzi of the town of Colle. It dates to 1746, and I’ve always loved its marvelously shining and sunny tone.

What can you say about the power of music here in Ernen?
What is very present here is the inspirational strength music gives us all, players and audience. It somehow binds us, one to the other, and essentially gives us a home in whatever culture we live in. Clearly, too, it opens our consciousness to a plane that’s hard to ascend to from the usual routine of our daily lives. Perhaps here in Ernen, music is is not as much a philosophical pursuit, as it is a visceral and emotional one.

What do you make of the theme for this year’s festival “Limitless?”
It appeals to me a great deal, especially in light of the dualism it represents. It might mean without any limits: that anything is possible, which gives free rein to the modern and new interpretations, and it can also allude to the genres that move across cultures, across space and time.

Does it have political implications, too?
I believe so. And as I said in my opening remarks, the modern media plays on the fact that all of us share a kind of universal longing to be part of a union. This sensation is something that music has always made possible. In a sense, our most pressing concerns bind us to one another more and more every day. We are, for example, collectively shocked when we follow horrific terrorist attacks, wars, and other man-made catastrophes that today, we can witness in the media after the very moments they happen.
So as both active musicians and music lovers, we firmly believe in the power of music to strengthen the power of the Good, and to unite people across national and cultural borders. Music is clearly one of the greatest riches of our civilization: and every culture find its own. The folk songs, for example, that Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók used as sources, can touch us, open our hearts and understanding, even if we come from disparate parts of the world. Even without much technical or academic understanding, music can give us a direct path to learning, experience and love for our fellow man.

So you consider music an art that can break down borders?
I would like to think so, and that musicians do a valuable service to society. By communicating even without words, I believe they open listeners both to others around them, and to more profound parts of themselves. And if music can work to those ends, those who practice will have done their job with both great effectiveness and great compassion.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet


As a gifted soloist, Xenia Jankovic has performed with the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including the Philharmonia Orchestra (London) and the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Madrid Philharmonic Orchestra and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
She returns to Ernen for the fifth time this summer as Artistic Director of the festival’s Chamber Music series.