Kosovo-born classical guitarist Petrit Ceku is delighted to be coming over here. The 31-year-old musician is one of the star turns at this year’s Voice of Music Festival, which will take place at Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee from July 12 to 16.
Ceku is looking forward to mellifluous forces with the likes of returning Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens; cellist Zvi Plesser, who also serves as artistic director of the whole five-day event; flutist Gili Schwartzman; and young cellist Haran Meltzer.
While Ceku may also be taken with the cuisine here – many a visiting artist has waxed lyrical about the hummus in these parts – he says he is eager to see whence some of the world’s greatest classical musicians hail.
“I am excited about this because of the musical background Israel has,” he enthuses. “It has musicianship that has been very influential for me, from Israel or connected with Israel.”
Pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim and violinist-conductor Itzhak Perlman come top of Ceku’s unbridled admiration fan list.
“I actually had the honor of meeting Itzhak Perlman when I was in New York. He is such a friendly fantastic person. I felt like I knew him all my life,” he says.
Like Perlman, Ceku got an early start to his musical path.
“I was around six years old when I picked up the guitar. It may have been earlier. I don’t remember a time when I did not play the guitar,” he declares.
It was a natural choice.
“The guitar was our home instrument for a long time,” Ceku recalls. “My father started playing the guitar when he was a child. Although he was an amateur musician, he studied economics, but during his studies he took some lessons of classical guitar. So that’s how I entered this unusual world of classical guitar. It is like a little universe within classical music.”
He may feel as if he was born playing the guitar, but for a while Ceku strayed from the beaten classical path.
“I listened to pop and rock music too, and for a while when I was a kid I played everything I heard around me. There was no selection. I didn’t have a musical taste growing up,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ceku Sr. did his best to keep his talented son on the straight and narrow.
“My father had his own way of trying to influence me, which I now realize was more important than I thought at the time,” he says.
Dad needn’t have been too concerned because his gifted offspring soon dove headlong into the alluring intricacies of one of the giants of the Baroque period.
“When I was around 12, I started getting into the music of Bach, and I started enjoying the harmonies. That was the most important musical value that drew me. So when I started getting involved in harmony, I entered that world and I didn’t come out yet,” he adds with a laugh.
The guitarist may spend most of his waking hours exploring the heady climes of sublime scores, but he says he makes sure he keeps his feet firmly anchored in his everyday surrounding.
“I try not to take music as a sort of social status. So when I listen to rock or pop music, I don’t feel superior. It is just something very, very different. I like rock and pop music, but it’s not as special; it’s not as layered as classical music,” he notes.
Ceku began his formal training at a music school at the age of nine, but he had something of a head start on his peers.
“I already knew how to play some classical pieces by [early 19th-century Spanish composer] Francisco Tarrega. I continued my studies in Croatia at the age of 16.
That was a very big thing for me. I was sent off far away from my parents and friends. Croatia is the country that formed my musical identity,” he says.
Once ensconced at the Zagreb Academy of Music, the youngster benefited from the wisdom and instructional style of the likes of Xhevdet Sahatxhija, who was behind the teenager’s move.
“He’s a really important teacher in Croatia,” says Ceku, noting another illustrious educator who had a profound influence on his early musical development.
“Darko Petrinjak is one of the most important people for classical guitar in Europe. He is very important for the world of classical guitar in general because classical guitarists from Croatia win a lot of competitions around the world, and many of them studied with Petrinjak,” he explains.
Ceku’s training also includes a valuable berth with Cuban classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland.
The musician has landed quite a few prizes himself, winning competitions for guitar and string instruments in the US, Italy, Germany and Croatia. He also has a couple of CDs to his name, the most recent of which came out last year and features Ceku’s readings of the full roster of Bach suites for cello.
Ceku has yet to try his hand at composing – he says he has plenty of time to worry about that – although he says his playing style incorporates an exploratory ethos.
“I am sort of leaving that for older days, somehow romantically,” he laughs. “My initial contact with music has been very improvisatory, and improvisation is quite an important part of composing as well. It’s basically a musical way of creating music. When I was younger I was even more involved in that. I used to improvise fugues and preludes of fugues. I don’t know what kind of quality they were, but I did that.”
He may be nearer the junior end of the musician age group, but Ceku is a great admirer of the senior proponents of the craft.
“There seem to be fewer and fewer older generation players. I really miss that. I think it is very important for people to continue playing until the very end of their days. I think there is too much fascination with youth,” notes the 31-year-old. “Musicians become better with age. [73-year-old] Daniel Barenboim’s playing is better than it has ever been. He said he is technically better than ever because he knows how to use his hands.”
Ceku displays impressive manual dexterity as well, which he will demonstrate at Kfar Blum when he contributes to performances of works by Handel, Schubert and Boccherini.
Other highlights lined up for Kfar Blum include the A Soldier’s Tale slot, with rock bass guitarist-vocalist Eran Zur serving as narrator of texts by Janacek and Edgar Allan Poe. And the Violins of Hope concert features members of Israel Camerata Jerusalem and soloists playing instruments that once belonged to Holocaust victims and survivors, which were collected and lovingly restored by Tel Aviv violin maker Amnon Weinstein.
For tickets and more information about the Voice of Music Festival: www.kol-hamusica.org.il and tickets.galil-elion.org.il.