Family trio at 30th MBZ: Filip, Lovro & Goran Merčep

The anniversary Biennale is also featuring a family trio: young musicians Filip and Lovro, and their father, Goran Merčep. The male portion of this wind-percussionist family has been kind to share their thoughts on the Biennale and contemporary music, as well as on family connections regarding music and musical exchange.

First, we should place you all in the Biennale context. Filip and Lovro, how many times have you performed at the Biennale? Goran, do you even keep track anymore?

Filip: This is the first time I will be performing with my own project. Nicolas (Sinković) and I have been collaborating as a duo since 2016 and we performed together at many domestic and foreign festivals. We also performed at the last two Biennales, but as a part of an ensemble that did a mini-opera project (2015) and the 5-minute piano concerto project (2017). 

Lovro: This is my second time performing at the Biennale. The first time I performed I was still a student of the Academy.

Goran: I really do not. There are very few Biennales that did not feature the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, which I am a part of. We have always looked forward to our Biennale performances; the atmosphere of the Festival has always been very distinct and creative, spreading that special feeling of collective creation, because there were a lot of cases when we would be introduced to the composers whose pieces we were playing only in that environment and they would all have their own particular demands on how to play the pieces they wrote.

Filip and Lovro, you performed all over Europe and beyond, and now you are coming before the local Biennale audience again. What does this performance mean to you?

Filip: Biennale is a big festival and one of the main generators of the development of contemporary music in Croatia. I think all of us have dreamt of performing at the Biennale from an early age, and I am exceptionally pleased that I will be performing Mak Murtić and Ivana Kiš's pieces with Nicolas at The Museum of Contemporary Art.

Lovro: Croatia is always the best place to perform. Nevertheless, there is a certain kind of responsibility when performing in front of a home audience. This responsibility is usually manifested in especially meticulous performance preparations. I am glad to have an opportunity to perform in Croatia, even though I have been abroad for ten years.

Goran, what would be your personal and professional assessment of the Biennale from your own beginnings until today. How do you see its evolution and changes? Has the Biennale been a fixed occurrence in your career in a sense and has it influenced you in any way?

At its beginnings, the Biennale definitely and fundamentally had an impact on familiarizing our social environment with contemporary art and has accordingly helped shape and direct young generations. I remember us in the 1980s as university students who could hardly wait for new Biennales, we spent days attending concerts, running from venue to venue wanting to discover something new. I think the new generations of students have somewhat lost that kind of enthusiasm, but I sincerely hope it is just temporary.

Filip and Lovro, how about you? In comparison to festivals all over the world, what do you think of the Biennale?

Filip: Nina Čalopek and Tomislav Oliver are doing a fantastic job. They are extremely professional and their level of commitment is something that all the other festivals could look up to, both in Europe and in the world. The logistics are good and what impresses me is the level of freedom we have in the planning and realization of our project. The initial phase, which consisted of scouting for locations and performance planning, went very smoothly and, most importantly, it was very motivational.

Lovro: The way I see it, what makes the Biennale special is the fact that it is a festival that engages the entire city. There are events and concerts all over the city and the urban tissue transforms into a contemporary classical music exposition. This type of festival abroad usually involves only one or two locations, tops, so they are lacking this inter-connectedness of music and the city, I think.

Filip, tell us something about your collaboration with Nicolas Sinković. Also, how are the Biennale performance preparations going on?

It is always great to work with Nicolas and, considering we have been good friends for a couple of years, any problem gets solved in no time. I am glad we have managed to collaborate with Mak Murtić, our young composer who is bound to create a very interesting piece. We are only e-mailing at the moment, but every single one of us knows exactly what they are supposed to do, and we are all looking forward to the rehearsals, which start at the beginning of April.

Lovro, what is your project for this year's MBZ?

I am very excited about this year's Biennale because I will be playing a world premiere of the Concerto for alto saxophone and strings by our wonderful composer Davorin Kempf. This will be my second premiere of his work, the first one I had the pleasure of performing was a piece for a saxophone quartet and chamber ensemble titled In modo classico. This is the first time that Davorin Kempf is writing a solo piece for alto saxophone and it makes me incredibly happy that he wrote it for me and that I will be the one performing it at the Biennale.

Goran, tell us something about your performance for this anniversary Biennale. What kind of a project will it be?

This year we are performing alongside an extraordinary musician, the American saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who will be playing a very rare mezzo soprano saxophone, specifically for this occasion. Together, as a quintet, we will be performing a piece by Irabagon and then another piece by Zoran Šćekić for the first time. All of us are really looking forward to working with Jon, who possesses this incredible sensibility when it comes to the combination of traditional and contemporary jazz.  

Filip and Lovro, how do you perceive this generation mix with your father Goran Merčep, a Biennale veteran? What do you think you could learn from your father? 

Filip: It will be nice to look back on the 30th Music Biennale Zagreb that featured all three of us. Growing up, we have learned a great deal from our father. Apart from the things about our musical instruments, we have also learned how to communicate with composers, which questions to ask and when to ask them, as well as how to deal with the workload and the expectations.

Lovro: I fell in love with contemporary music because of my father and I have been watching his Biennale performances since I was a little boy. He is always giving me good career advice and his experience often comes in handy when I have to make a decision. Of course, all of this always and without fail is talked over with my mother because her role is just as important in the entire process.

Goran, what can you learn from Filip and Lovro? Are you perhaps considering any joint projects in the near future?

Lovro and Filip have, to my great delight and pride, grown up to be very capable and responsible musicians, and I hope they enjoy it for the rest of their lives, as I am doing. They belong to a younger generation of musicians who have no problem travelling around the world and whose perimeter is much wider than before, so they meet more people and develop new artistic approaches, which is crucial for surviving in the market. No one will be happier than I if our musical paths cross someday...

Filip, you are our young master of marimba, an instrument whose time, at least in terms of music literature, is just coming. How do you see contemporary music – oriented towards the future and thus, in a sense, music whose time is also coming?

Our solo repertoire consists mostly of contemporary pieces (with a couple of exceptions) and some of them are true masterpieces. Naturally, many different compositions can be found in this huge corpus, but I personally prefer pieces written in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I am currently also preparing Vibrafonietta by Ivo Malec for vibraphone and strings. That piece is an absolute gem and I am incredibly proud to present it as a part of my cultural heritage.

Lovro, your saxophone quartet Ardemus also plays contemporary music. Where would you place your own music preferences? What is contemporary music for you personally?

Contemporary music offers a freedom that is perhaps not possible in music from the classical or romantic periods. The notes serve only as guidelines and the majority of contemporary music can be interpreted in more than one way, which, in turn does not force the interpreter into a specific mold. I think that contemporary music, along with early music and jazz, offers the most possibilities for individual interpretation and creative freedom.

Goran, you have been performing contemporary music for decades, both as a soloist and in an ensemble. Is the 'feeling' of that kind of music different from the feeling evoked by, let's say, classical ideas? 

Performing contemporary music is always challenging because it broadens one’s artistic horizons. It is not easy because it requires additional effort in exploring new musical paths and a technical evolution of an instrument. It is definitely a privilege to mingle with artists dedicated to new music and this is both an inspiration and an encouragement to actively engage in the vibrant art of today.

Filip and Lovro, you are both continuing your music education in Amsterdam, where you currently live. Could you share some of your plans for the future? Where do you see yourselves in five years?

Filip: Um, it is kind of hard to plan five days ahead, let alone five years ahead (laughter)! The plan is to work, to progress, to learn... To let things take their own course and adjust along the way.

Lovro: To play, to learn about new cultures and countries, and enjoy what I do.

Goran, do you secretly wish the boys would return to Croatia and follow in your footsteps, so to speak?

Speaking out of experience, a great number of Croatian artists abroad are not actively involved in the Croatian artistic scene, for some reason or the other. I would first like for these circumstances to change and then I would be happy for my sons to return to Croatia.


Interviewer: Martina Bratić