If you had to guess which city can boast the largest audience that came out to see a klezmer violinist in recent months, you would probably guess Toronto or New York. But the correct answer is Belgrade. Yes, Belgrade.
In December, as Serbia began welcoming the new year, the 18,000-plus seat Stark Stadium was packed to witness the local premiere of Goran Bregovic’s Three Letters from Sarajevo violin concerto, featuring Israeli violinist Gershon Leizerson.
Born in Russia, Leizerson grew up in Israel and began studying violin as a child. He followed his passion for Jewish folk music and now leads the group, Oy Division. How did he end up performing at sports stadiums?
“I was practicing boxing, as many Russian immigrants do,” he remembers. “One day, I was in a really tough fight. I lost. I looked at my cellphone and saw a message: ‘It’s Goran Bregovic. I’d like to invite you to perform some concerts with you and record a CD.’” Leizerson worried he had got a concussion and was hallucinating, but the text was real. Leizerson spent 2018 touring the world with Bregovic.
“I use Sarajevo as a metaphor,” explains Bregovic. “What we saw in Sarajevo in the 1990s, we now see all over the world. Today, we can be good neighbours and tomorrow we can shoot each other because we are from different religions.” Bregovic also sees it as a warning for others not to repeat the tragic mistakes of 1990s Yugoslavia that left over 100,000 dead.
Bregovic’s idea was to create a violin concerto that incorporates how the instrument is played differently in Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. He turned to Serbia’s Mirjana Neskovic, Tunisia’s Zied Zouari and Israel’s Gershon Leizerson to be his soloists.
Bregovic was born in Sarajevo in 1950. His father is Croatian, his mother Serbian and his wife is a Bosnian Muslim. Bregovic’s family represented the Yugoslavian experience and that was something he wanted to convey through his music. Over the past four decades, he has created the soundtrack for Yugoslavia – a country that no longer exists.
“Bregovic creates that feeling that you can go back (in time),” says violinist Mirjana Neskovic, who was just a child when war broke out in Yugoslavia. “I think that (people in) most countries in the Balkans, after the separation of Yugoslavia, don’t live better. They have some nostalgia about the time that we spent together, when we had a big, strong country. We somehow ruined it.”
Bregovic often expresses his feeling of being powerless against the waves of history, despite being the second most well known celebrity from the former Yugoslavia (Melania Trump holds that title). “The thing I did with Three Letters, I put together things that are unimaginable in politics, or for religion. As a composer, I can put together low notes with high notes,” he says symbolically about the idea of combining Jewish, Christian and Islamic music. “But unfortunately, it is only the privilege of a composer that can do that.”
On YouTube, there is a prophetic (and grainy) video of Bregovic standing in front of Sarajevo’s skyline in 1991: bells are ringing at the city’s churches, along with a Muslim call to prayer. Speaking in Serbian (with English subtitles), he says, “What we hear are mosques, churches, cathedrals. It’s noon in Sarajevo. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can hear them all together, and sounding so beautifully. It would be a shame if it had to stop one day.”
“What is sad in that little video (from 1991), you see a young man, me, when I was in my 30s, saying the things I repeat in my 60s,” he says. “It is, in a way, a little sad that I am saying the same thing for 30 years. But there are some things that you have to repeat and repeat, because they are important.”