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Scott Jarvie
Vladimir Kulenovic is the new assistant conductor of the Utah Symphony.
Kulenovic spoke of the universal language that is music, saying that becoming an effective channel of the message of a piece is not something that's simply taught and learned but comes from a deep understanding of music and honesty; a learning not just about music but of one's existence.

To talk to Vladimir Kulenovic, the new assistant conductor for the Utah Symphony, is to hear a story of music personified.

“It was never really a question for me whether I would be a musician or not,” he said. “It wasn’t really a choice.” Music, for Kulevonic, not only takes on a life of its own, it’s his life.

His father, Vuk, a composer and professor at the Boston Berklee School of Music, and his piano professor mother raised Kulenovic, along with a brother and sister, in a music-rich environment. Born in Belgrade in 1980 in what was then Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Kulenovic spoke of taking his father's baton as a toddler. Stravinsky’s “Firebird” was one of his favorites to conduct as a little boy. Kulenovic called that the “first spark” for his passion for music.

“It was really the first thing that I actually fell in love with,” he said.

When his father publicly opposed the war and regime of dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the family came to the United States to escape further persecution. Kulenovic spent one school year in Boston before returning when he was 12 to Belgrade, where his family could better afford a musical education for him in piano and violin. Kulenovic moved to the U.S. permanently at 20 years old to pursue an education in conducting.

The conductor certainly looks brilliant on paper.

Graduating summa cum laude, recipient of the Alfred B. Whitney Award for the highest scholastic achievement and Bruno Walter Memorial Sholarship, guest conductor at the Aspen Music Festival, principal conductor at the Kyoto International Music Festival, degrees and graduate diplomas from Boston Conservatory, Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and The Julliard School, second prize at the Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Paris — this list just scratches the surface of Kulenovic's accomplishments and education.

And his education is more than evident in person.

In one conversation alone, Kulenovic not only demonstrated incredible expertise in his field, but he also made reference to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and turned out a French phrase to express himself.

His knowledge draws from a past of tremendous hard work to get through school. While working on his undergraduate degree, for example, he maintained a studio of 15 piano students and never saw a day off. He’s a self-proclaimed workaholic.

“Either you’re lucky to have (your education) provided for you or not, but it doesn’t matter. Music doesn’t care,” he said of his commitment and sacrifice.

“The greatest thing about it is that it’s all worth it. It doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice. It feels almost natural. You do it because this is not what you do, this is what you live. It’s your life.”

Wearing jeans and black loafers, he sat in his office conversing amiably, making jokes between deeply thought out theories and explanations. When it comes to extra musical interests, Kulenovic calls himself a “nature boy,” excited about the opportunities Utah’s landscape will provide. He is also an avid bicyclist (his bike was just downstairs) and tennis player — quick to point out that Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is currently the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

To most accurately capture how Kulenovic discusses music — his life — every other word in his quotes would have to be italicized to show proper emphasis. He spoke in an extremely animated manner, humming selections from symphonies and conducting imaginary orchestras, his voice sometimes dropping to a near whisper as he talked about the interconnected universe of music, how he’s concluded that all roads lead to Bach — so far. He’s still learning. He’s still loving learning.

Kulenovic gave credit where credit is due. He feels he owes a lot to and often quoted his teachers and mentors, which include conducting greats James DePreist, Gustav Meier and Kurt Masur.

He is especially grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Masur for about three years.

“In a sense, I’m still working with him now because the effect of it was so lasting,” Kulenovic said. He later added, “You have never seen a more profound and effective communicator than Masur. It is one thing that I aspire to achieve … to reach his level of communication.”

Kulenovic spoke of the universal language that is music, saying that becoming an effective channel of the message of a piece is not something that’s simply taught and learned but comes from a deep understanding of music and honesty — a learning not just about music but of one’s existence.

“You can’t really put it into words,” he said. “It’s not an explanation that’s theoretical but emotional.”

It was at that point that Kulenovic apologized and said he’d stop, afraid of overwhelming the reporter with his philosophizing.

Moving on to a candid conversation about all the other music out there, he laughed about how “brutal” he is about the quality of music, but in all seriousness defined real music as “an honest expression of oneself” — the kind of song that stops you in your tracks.

“What actually does the trick is whether it’s powerful enough that you can identify with it,” Kulenovic said. “What type it is … doesn’t really matter.”

Surprisingly, he gave an example of a song by Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson — a country-style piece with a banjo and flatpick guitar. Though Kulenovic dislikes listening to music casually, every once in a while, he comes across something that fulfills music’s purpose of communication as it should.

Kulenovic hopes to convey the importance of music as a superior form of communication in the upcoming family series concert, “Spooky Symphonies: The Extraterrestrial Encounter,” on Oct. 24 and 25.

He took on a playful tone as he talked about the program he’s created. It’s opportunities like this that drew him to the Utah Symphony in the first place.

“I actually hadn’t found (an orchestra) that was more attractive to me as a musician than this orchestra, primarily because of the education programs,” Kulenovic said, citing the 100-plus concerts he’ll be doing as part of the education tours, plus the family series and lollipop series for young children.

“Not that I’m sentimental or anything, but when you see these kids, you get tears in your eyes just from what you’re doing,” Kulenovic said. “This is their first time hearing these pieces.” The conductor accepts his position as a solemn responsibility to leave a lasting impression on young people.

Kulenovic creates the entire education program from scratch, using his imagination.

Beverly Hawkins, the education manager for the symphony, said the staff feels incredibly lucky to have Kulenovic, and she said his work is fantastic. “He is a teacher. That comes through very clearly,” she said. “The fun he feels and experiences with music is infectious. It comes across the podium to the audience.”

The storyline of the annual Spooky Symphonies concert gives a slightly “cheesy” message, Kulenovic said, but an important one. He emphasized that he hopes to teach an understanding of music to the audience through the fun.

“It’s a very ambitious program actually, a lot of serious music,” he said, discussing the many Russian greats like Stravinsky, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev that will be featured in the performance. The program will also give a most entertaining nod to "Star Wars."

As he detailed the upcoming concert, Kulenovic was clearly grateful and thrilled at the opportunity. In fact, he’s thrilled with everything about his new post.

Mentioning the Darwinist process of making it as a conductor, he jumped at the opportunity to work here.

“I would’ve taken it over any other job in the United States without even thinking,” he said. “And now that I’m actually working here, (the decision) is so reaffirmed. It’s such a pleasure. From Maestro Fischer down to everyone.”

After his debut experience in the Deer Valley Music Festival this summer, Kulenovic said that his best compliment from an orchestra member was that his style was extremely similar to what music director Thierry Fischer is bringing to the table.

“I’m not a really big believer in fate,” he said, grinning from ear to ear at the serendipity that brought him here and now, “but I really wanted to work for this orchestra for the past four years, and it happened, and I really wanted to work for a musician like Maestro Fischer … I just can’t imagine a better match.”

Kulenovic backs Fischer’s selections — all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies — for this season with fervor.

“He’s the closest you can get to a musical god,” he said of Beethoven, discussing how the transformative and revolutionary effect the composer’s works had on the musical world parallel what will happen to the Utah Symphony.

“I think the effect that he had on music … will be the effect that this program and season, and Maestro Fischer and his work, is going to have on the orchestra and its future,” he said.

Kulenovic is ready to rise to the occasion for the three or more years he has with the symphony.

“As Masur once said, ‘Never be satisfied.’ I work all the time, just preparing for everything, knowing what had been done before, improving on it, also having new ideas.”

Kulenovic was also pleased to report many future guest conducting engagements in Serbia — he made his debut with the Belgrade Philharmonic in March.

“I will stay here, but I’m very happy to be able to contribute back home as well … to come back — because a lot of people don’t — and that’s important,” he said. “Great things are happening over there musically.”

Despite frequent trips back to Serbia, he already feels strong ties to Utah.

“The people here are so wonderful,” he said. “It’s such a perfect place to live in harmony with your fellow human beings. Really, it just feels ideal.” He especially appreciates the atmosphere that not only permits, but encourages people to create and contribute, something that wasn’t possible when his family was in Yugoslavia, where he said, “Your hands are tied.”

Kulenovic said his work, his location and people he works with have given him a great sense of “raison d'Être” — a reason for being.

“I’m permanently happy here,” he said.

For more information about conductor Vladimir Kulenovic, visit vladimirkulenovic.com.

If you go...

What: Utah Symphony, “Spooky Symphonies: The Extraterrestrial Encounter,” Ralph Matson, violin, Vladimir Kulenovic, conductor

Where/When: The Show Barn at Thanksgiving Point on Oct. 24, Abravanel Hall Oct. 25

How much: $8-$15

Phone: For the Abravanel Hall performance, 801-355-2787 and 801-533-6683 for group discounts and season ticket holders; for the Thanksgiving Point performance, 801-768-2300

Web: http://www.utahsymphony.org or http://www.thanksgivingpoint.com/