Dragan Sremec - Artistic Director of the 18th World Saxophone Congress - 06
About Dragan Sremec
Dragan Sremec is a professor of saxophone and the vice-dean at the Zagreb Music Academy. He is the founder of the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, and for many years he was the principal saxophonist with the Zagreb Philharmonic and the Croatian Radio Television Symphony Orchestra.
Dragan was the first ever graduate in saxophone from the Zagreb Academy in 1981 and went on to study in Paris with Daniel Deffayet and with Dr Eugene Rousseau at the IU School of Music.
He has performed as a soloist and as a member of the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet in the prestigious halls of many European countries, the USA, South America and Asia. He played with all major orchestras in Croatia and Slovenia, with the Orchestra of the French Republican Guard, the US Navy Band and many more.
He made many solo recordings for Croatian Radio and Television, and with his quartet, he has recorded 11 albums. He has premiered over fifty works by foremost Croatian and Slovenian composers, and currently, Dragan is artistic director of the 2018 World Saxophone Congress, hosted in Zagreb, Croatia.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Dragan at the 16th World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews, Scotland. Our final performance of the Congress included the Philippe Geiss arrangement of Sir Patrick with Branford Marsalis and many other great musicians. Dragan and I were both playing soprano saxophone in this lively encore piece. Earlier this year we had chance to perform a new work in an ad-hoc quartet along with Kenneth Tse and Javier Valerio, conducted by the composer, Alain Crepin. I look forward to playing with him again at the next congress in Zagreb, and I’m sure that you will enjoy this conversation with pioneering Croation saxophonist, Dragan Sremec.
- My life is a series of coincidences.
- Too old for violin and piano, the guitar is already full of candidates.
- Saxophone, play the saxophone.
- My professor Nochta was a great teacher and musician.
- I got a Fulbright grant to study with Eugene Rousseau.
- Deffayet was very polite, very gentle with me.
- Be open to knowledge.
- The bloody war started.
- Almost 30 years with the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet.
- When you practise a lot, you don’t need a lot of warm-ups.
- Just practise.
- If you don’t have a goal, you’re just stalling.
- The World Saxophone Congress.
- Avoiding a secluded kind of saxophone sect that nobody knows.
Transcript of Podcast Interview with Dragan Sremec
Barry Cockcroft: So an easy place to start is if you could tell us how you got started with the saxophone.
Dragan Sremec: My musical life started with a series of coincidences. I went somewhere in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents wanted me to play an instrument. In the beginning, my father, who was an amateur, loved to sing with the guitar, with the thumping, these kinds of fingerings on the left hand and he bought me a guitar. They sent me to a private (not a School of Music) but a type of company, which gave some lessons in guitar and mandolin. I got some lesson on guitar, and I liked it. The next step was the following year when my parents would want me to go to music school. We have music education, quite well developed. We have primary music schools, and middle school to university, so the students get very well prepared.
Barry Cockcroft: Is that outside of the normal school?
Dragan Sremec: Outside of normal school. My parents wanted me to go to the School of Music, and I was very opposed to that because I already had two friends in my class, who all their spare time for playing, for football, et cetera they were in the school of music. I was really against that. Eventually, of course, I surrendered. After the initial exam, I was at the time 13 years old, something like that. They told me, “You know you have an excellent ear. You’re too old for violin, too old for piano, the guitar is already full of candidates, of course, younger candidates. You could play double bass, trumpet or saxophone.” The saxophone was new in Croatian music schools, and it was the second year. I just phoned my father, “Which instrument should I play?” And my he said, “Saxophone, play the saxophone.” That’s just coincidence.
After they gave me a tenor saxophone – a B and S saxophone. I don’t know whether those saxophones still exist, those German or Czech saxophones but it was a new saxophone, and my teacher obviously was a clarinet player. In my music theory class, there was one particular professor who approached us in an extraordinary way. After three weeks nobody could pull me out of the School of Music. I just fell in love with music. Every young student of music got some lessons on the piano. I got in love piano. By coincidence, I applied to study the theoretical subjects parallel with the saxophone. I played the saxophone well, apparently well and I was one among first in the Croatian music system who did saxophone.
In my advanced years, in my later teenage years I went to concerts. There was Verdi’s Requiem, and I was overwhelmed with that music, and I decided that I wanted to be a conductor. I prepared myself to be a conductor in my third grade of high school. My father was one of the pioneers of documentary film in Yugoslavia at that time. He tried to persuade me to go, to follow in his footsteps, to go to Academy of Drama to study directing, or camera, or whatever. However, I wanted to do my conducting. Eventually, there was admission exam, and I passed this exam for the conducting.
In the meantime, in my fourth year of high school, my professor and director of Music School were thinking, why wouldn’t we try to persuade the Academy of Music to accept the saxophone? Eventually, they wrote their letters to the Music Academy and the Ministry of Education. From my class, my two colleagues and I wrote to the Music Academy. We explained to the Ministry that we would like a course to be opened to study the saxophone. And it happened! During the summer they began this new study, and they announced the competition for saxophone students. I thought, why not? I applied for this position, and I, of course, I passed and my colleague and I we were two first students there.
Teacher was Josip Nochta after whom we named the competition in Zagreb, Croatia. He was clarinet player from his teenage years, the first clarinet player in opera, then in Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and he loved saxophone. When needed he used to play saxophone in the orchestra. He was a great musician. He was the first teacher of saxophone, and I was studying conducting. I was studying saxophone and the people, the other professors, appreciated me. Of course, it was something new, but apparently, I played well because they gave me opportunities to go from elsewhere to some reunions with other music academies in Yugoslavia and also, I got some opportunities to conduct. When I finished studying saxophone, I was the first one who finished the music academy. Somehow I had, obviously, more opportunities to play the saxophone than to conduct.
Now, I can say that in Croatia the situation is much better for young conductors. At that time the orchestras and their chief conductors, especially members of the orchestra, didn’t like young conductors. Now, why would he teach himself on us? The story goes that I practised the saxophone. I played well. I played better and better, and somehow my life turned more toward saxophone. Then I got some prizes in the national competitions. I got the French government grant to study with Daniel Deffayet. Eventually, I got a Fulbright grant to study with Eugene Rousseau and music community started to think of me as a saxophone player.
My life, by coincidence, went in quite a different way to how I wanted. I cannot say that I regret this, but I miss the music that we don’t have as a saxophonist. I miss it a lot. I love to play with my students Franck and Brahms transcriptions and music like that. Now, my daughter, she is studying singing. I’m so eager to accompany her as much as possible. That’s my musical beginnings.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve had a few different teachers and great teachers. Could you perhaps remember the differences in their style of teaching and as you worked your way through learning, did you take on those different types of education or did you develop your own style?
Dragan Sremec: I think I did develop my own style. My professor Nochta he was a great teacher and musician. He was the first clarinet in opera and eventually in Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was the most appreciated musician in the orchestra. Everybody bowed to him, and he taught me a lot about music. Of course, he didn’t show me how to use the bis key. We imported the bis key later with my colleagues. I played the Ibert, Creston Sonata, and some other pieces with a side B flat, without bis key. He couldn’t teach me anything about altissimo. I had some charts, and I was trying and trying. I think because I was learning classical musical, all music there was no opportunity to listen to a lot of saxophone music. There was one LP in the library with Vincent Abato playing Glazunov and Ibert. There was the other recording in the French library was Londeix playing Scaramouche. That was about it. Later I got this Rousseau LP with concertos. Ibert, Glazunov, Dubois and Villa-Lobos.
That’s the only saxophone music that I heard during my schooling, but I did get to hear a lot of good music, a lot of conductors, a lot of singers. I had an excellent idea of sound. I was not going to play jazz or something. I’m a classically trained musician. Later, everybody, they were telling me that they loved my sound. When I finished at the academy, when I went to study with Daniel Deffayet and later Rousseau, I was already quite grown up. With Deffayet and Rousseau, I asked them some tricks, what to do here and there. They didn’t want to show me. We just made some music. I cannot tell anything more about their teaching style. Deffayet was very polite, very gentle with me. Although I was sitting in the class, he was very harsh some other students. Maybe he was kind to me because I was guest, or because I played better, or I don’t know really. With Rousseau of course, that was a lovely journey with him, and he is a great musician.
They didn’t tell me anything about sound production, nothing about that. We were talking about the intonation, maybe about the dynamics, about opening the throat, especially with Deffayet he taught me a lot about the throat and developing the higher register. But he just told me to practise long notes, fortissimo in the upper register three minutes every day. I did, and I got a sore throat, but it opened it.
Barry Cockcroft: Was moving abroad a big deal for you?
Dragan Sremec: No.
Barry Cockcroft: Not at all.
Dragan Sremec: Not at all.
Barry Cockcroft: It seemed like a natural thing to do.
Dragan Sremec: That was something that I wanted to do, and I was quite proficient in languages both French and English. I didn’t have any barrier, and I wanted to go out to learn and to meet people.
Barry Cockcroft: Would you say taking yourself out of your home environment into another country, would you say that is a good thing for students to do?
Dragan Sremec: I think I suggest to all my students, go out and come back. I try to persuade them to be open to knowledge. Open your mind. Listen to the concerts. Go out, meet people, go to the theatre. It’s a problem of this generation now. I think somebody said that we are exposed to information, a lot of information, but we are eager to know. The information runs through our ears, through our eyes with these generations. I’m not generalising, but I’m meeting a lot of students and people like that that they don’t have time to swallow the knowledge and to get out of the country, to be whatever, just to get out, to see how it works outside.
Barry Cockcroft: How did you transition from internationally trained student into a working career when you went home?
Dragan Sremec: I think both my professors, my conducting professors and my professors of saxophone they saw me as their heirs. I became an assistant professor in conducting and in saxophone in the same part-time job. After a few years, they opened just for a saxophone assistant and not for conducting, and they said now you could not be in full-time here as an assistant and part-time there. Also, I was a little bit glad not to be any longer an assistant in conducting because I was not conducting much. How can I teach my younger colleagues something which I didn’t experience my self? It was much easier with saxophone. I was the assistant professor. Then I went six months to Paris. Then I came back, and then I worked as an assistant a, but this Professor Nochta let me work almost alone. He just supervised. Then I went to Bloomington to study with Eugene Rousseau and then this bloody war started.
Barry Cockcroft: The war must have had a profound impact on both you as a person but as a working musician.
Dragan Sremec: I’m not complaining because in this war nobody from my family, nobody was directly affected by the war. We are alive. Our houses are not damaged, but I know many, many people who are. My colleague’s mother-in-law she was in a camp. After Vukovar, she was in a camp several months. We, as my Zagreb Saxophone Quartet and myself, yes, we worked. I had the students. We had during the war and immediately after, we had a few academic years. Life went on, but I’m angry, I’m still mad when I remember that we spent that, that I spent many years, 10 or 15 years of my life in the kind of nightmare of these events.
Barry Cockcroft: The Zagreb Saxophone Quartet, is a longstanding ensemble.
Dragan Sremec: Yes, I think we are the oldest ensemble in the same formation, same people, almost 30 years.
Barry Cockcroft: I have noticed saxophone quartets seem to be able to sustain themselves for much longer than say string quartets. Is there something about saxophone players that allow them to keep working together for decades?
Dragan Sremec: I don’t know really. I think each of us we are different personalities, different musical personalities. We are about an individual position in life, in the world. We are satisfied individually, and we love to get together to play music. Now, we play a little bit less than we played ten years ago but always we are eager to play together. We have a good time together. When we go out on tour we don’t speak a lot about music, but we talk, as older we get, what we ate and where we ate. That’s the thing that many older musicians say, “But there was excellent dinner after”.
Barry Cockcroft: Was one of your goals of the group to champion Croation music and did you find you had to seek out the composers or were the composers approaching you with music?
Dragan Sremec: Especially when I was a younger soloist and when the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet was in the earlier years, many composers approached us. Neither myself nor the saxophone quartet had any problem approaching the most prominent names of Croatian composers. Boris Papandopulo, a foremost composer, composed a concerto for me. Also, the saxophone quartet dedicated was to me, and of course, on every concert, we promote Croatian pieces.
Barry Cockcroft: Have you taken the Croatian music out to the world or has it been more a process of presenting the music at home?
Dragan Sremec: At home, we play some Croatian music because some pieces which we love and if we play some concerts for Ministry of Culture, which we sometimes do, we are obliged to have a Croatian piece on the programme but on every recital in foreign countries we have some Croatian pieces.
Barry Cockcroft: Has this enthusiasm for new music continued into the new generations of saxophone players?
Dragan Sremec: Yes, yes, it’s developing. I have had many great students, excellent musicians. Some of them they formed Papandopulo Saxophone Quartet. The younger generation of composers is composing for them a lot.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, I’ve put some questions for you about practice. Do you have any particular routines that you like to fall back on?
Dragan Sremec: I love to practise, especially when we have some concerts in front of us, I’ll have to practise to achieve the goals during the practise procedure. Otherwise, my practise routine, just to keep the embouchure and the sound is scales and long notes. Only scales, long notes, some patterns in different tonalities, no more.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think the type of practice is different from when you are working intensely as a student?
Dragan Sremec: When I worked intensely as a student, I did it in a very efficient way. Ten minutes scales, long notes, études. I think I had a very, very good routine and of course, when you practise a lot, you don’t need a lot of warm-ups. When there is a short time to learn something new, which could be technically challenging, I have a routine to learn fast. If it’s a long set of 16 notes or something like that I try to do it with an excellent sound. When I read them of course, I run through the passages in slow tempo, and when I know where to go, where my points are, I practise one bit, two bits together in real tempo. But with the sound, and the quality and the approach of slow tempo.
I do the same thing with the students because during years I realised that a technique of sound produced is a little bit different when you’re playing slower than when you’re playing fast. When you’re accelerating the tempo with a metronome, it’s a long process and this way I could learn quite quickly, except for the awkward passages, where you need more time.
Barry Cockcroft: How do you become fluent at the different saxophones?
Dragan Sremec: Just practise.
Barry Cockcroft: Just practise.
Dragan Sremec: Just practise. It was not a problem from alto to tenor. Much more was a problem from alto to soprano because I didn’t have the professors to teach me. I learnt myself the differences between soprano and alto. Alto is sharp; the soprano is flat.
Barry Cockcroft: You’ve played for a very long time. Is there something you could advise about how do you stay injury free and have a healthy playing career without getting injured as some people, unfortunately, come across?
Dragan Sremec: Fortunately, in my teenage years I did some sports. I did rowing. I was quite strong. At that time I haven’t had any problems with holding the saxophone, whichever saxophone. Usually, I teach my students to take care of their posture when they’re playing. They’re playing crooked. Of course, the diaphragm doesn’t work. I teach them to bring the weight of the instrument through the column and the legs and through to the floor. There are some excellent masterclasses by Thomas Hampson, the great baritone singer. There are exciting things he’s speaking about for singers, but we can apply everything. What singers do we can use. I advise all my students to listen not to saxophone players, listen to singers because when you look to saxophone players, “Arno Bornkamp plays like this. I will play it like this, this.” They’re trying maybe sometimes to be a copy of somebody. If they learn music from the other point of view, singers are the closest to our apparatus.
For example, when I practise low register, it’s quite tiring to press. When I would like to have those fingers quite capable, after half a minute or minute, I feel that my arm and the part of my palm is getting warm. I immediately stop. I tell my students, practise half a minute, a minute then stop. Don’t do anymore otherwise; you will have a problem with this tendon.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s about taking a break.
Dragan Sremec: Taking a break, not to force. Very often they squeeze too much. Their hands are crooked and not at ease. They press too much, or they’re too slow. I try to correct the position of their hands to avoid such things.
Barry Cockcroft: All right. When you start out, did you have a plan or did your career unfold and you took opportunities as they came up?
Dragan Sremec: I had some plans in my life to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but I always had some plans and some goals, always. I say to my students if you don’t have a goal, you’re just stalling. You’re not moving. You have to go ahead always to do something. Yes, of course, I love to do nothing. Sometimes just to sit and watch nature, the trees. I’m the kind of person that I want to have some goals. When you have some goals, the opportunities come by themselves. It’s maybe crucial for this conversation that considerable portion of my life I spent, I cannot say that I spent, but I was involved in the building of the Music Academy as vice dean. In my mind and with my colleagues I had a goal. For 95 years we have had awful conditions. No practise rooms. We were spread around the town in five locations. The work wasn’t good. When there was an opportunity to build a building, and since I had visited a lot of schools of music with facilities, somehow I was involved in thinking about the programme, to work with an architect, et cetera. I spent a lot of time on that not only for saxophone. Maybe I sacrificed some things in my saxophone life, but that’s the way it is.
These are all coincidences. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, if everything will be, we call it on the string. Nothing is interesting in that. The most exciting thing is to have variety. I love to play with my saxophone colleagues because each time we play differently with purpose. Maybe on the stage, somebody makes a much more prominent ritenuto and everybody knows each, everybody hears. Or slower tempo or faster tempo. Perhaps somebody could complain, but that’s fun – the variety. When I teach students, I try to explain to them to play the most colourful way that they can do. Like flowers, colourful, full of colours. Not only colours in sound but colours in phrasing, in details.
Barry Cockcroft: How important has recording been in your music making?
Dragan Sremec: Not so important because personally, I’m a very meticulous man. Usually, I’m not satisfied and this stress of recording – I’m satisfied after a few years. Oh jeez, I played well. We did play well but with a distance. We have several CDs. I have one LP. My performances are on some CDs. We did it for us because this is something that will stay with us. Of course, that was a kind of presentation, a sort of identity that was before YouTube, before all that stuff. I am very proud of our performances, our CDs, especially we are proud of the last one that was more than ten years ago. We recorded Brahms and Mozart Quintets. That was indeed another experience because this is a guy who plays with Maxim Vengerov, with Julian Rachlin, with Janine Jansen. You know the brand names when you listen to the labels. He also performs in a duo with Martha Argerich.
When you have such person from another world, not the saxophone world, another musical world and when you’re making music, that was a journey for us, and we did a great job.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, if you just had one piece of music that you could play, what would that be?
Dragan Sremec: It has to be saxophone music or in general for saxophone.
Barry Cockcroft: No, I mean, think of the deserted island you’re there, what would you take?
Dragan Sremec: I won’t take saxophone. I will take an orchestra. For saxophone, I would like to play Brahms, Franck, something like that.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one hour to practise, how would you spend that time?
Dragan Sremec: Scales and trying time to find the reed.
Barry Cockcroft: Fifty-five minutes finding the reed.
Dragan Sremec: Scales and arpeggios
Barry Cockcroft: Who do you consider to be one of the most successful contributors to the saxophone community?
Dragan Sremec: I cannot point to only one. For Example, I have to say the point, the one contributor, which was the most important for saxophone in Croatia. That was Claude Delangle because we met in ’81. That was a long time ago. With the support of the French Cultural Institute, he had a tour, and he came to Zagreb. He had just finished at the Paris Conservatoire with Daniel Deffayet. That was the first exposure of Zagreb’s Croatian students to modern life, living person. We talked a lot at that time, and the chief of L’Institut Français was very helpful. They sent us a pile of repertoire. His next contribution is that he brought me my first soprano saxophone. Next contribution he made was to the Music Academy where he brought the first baritone saxophone. You have to know that at the time, that was Yugoslavia. It was not a question of the regime, but it was difficult to get the new instruments, to get reeds, to get all those things. Today that is normal.
I played alto saxophone on Vandoren A100, you know that model. There was a model A100, and then I saw on a Marcel Mule photo, he has this saxophone, this mouthpiece. I would like to have this metal mouthpiece. I asked my grandma’s friend whose daughter was living in Milano to get me this mouthpiece. She came back not with that mouthpiece because it was not in production anymore, but I got a Selmer opening E. I played Selmer opening E for several years. Then I went to the Geneva Competition. We were sitting in front of the jury, all the known saxophonist members of the jury appraised my playing, my musicality, sound, et cetera. All saxophonists – your c-sharp, what mouthpiece do you play? I said, “The Selmer E.” “No, no, C*”. You have to have C*,” so I went to the shop to buy the C*. It was hilarious.
Barry Cockcroft: You mentioned YouTube, do you make use of any technology in your music making and do you find technology to be a distraction to your practice?
Dragan Sremec: I only use a metronome and a tuner. Now, I prefer just to hear the sound and to play the major scales or something like that.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think students now are distracted by technology?
Dragan Sremec: You mean tapping on mobile phones? Yes, they are.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you encourage the students then to step back from those things?
Dragan Sremec: They’re not tapping on the mobile phone during my lessons, but I think I cannot struggle against that. That’s a way. I accept it. I appreciate all the advantages of that but am not the gadget man. I don’t have Facebook. I don’t have my website. I don’t care for that.
Barry Cockcroft: If we learn from our mistakes, is it okay to make mistakes?
Dragan Sremec: It’s okay to make mistakes. Everybody does. If they are essential things, there are mistakes and mistakes. When you are on the stage there are mistakes, always and that’s a part of life. Maybe in my whole life, I had one or two concerts without any errors, but during the process of learning something, making the same mistakes, I think I don’t make the same mistakes because personally, I’m trying to correct, to practise in a way. I get mad when I say to a student something, and this mistake, wrong note, or long slur, or whatever on the next lesson, I have the same.
Barry Cockcroft: Tonight, we have a performance. What will you be doing to prepare for that performance before you go on to the stage?
Dragan Sremec: Usually, I warm with some scales with loud blowing. I love to do that. Why loud? Because when I warm up, I always want to open up all my machinery. If I play soft, I don’t feel my breath well enough. Of course, before exiting on the stage, I always like to sit a little bit. I still regret when there’s no possibility to sit backstage.
Barry Cockcroft: Could you look back at your younger self when you were starting out in your musical career, could you give yourself a piece of advice that you would have liked to have heard at the time?
Dragan Sremec: It’s impossible to have the brain. The brain now for the brain there.
Barry Cockcroft: You have a very major project coming up, many years in the making. Could you perhaps describe your thinking behind the World Saxophone Congress that’s coming up in Zagreb this year?
Dragan Sremec: I’m happy that Zagreb is hosting this World Saxophone Congress in several ways. A Saxophone Congress in countries like Croatia, which is a small country unlike it was in Slovenia in 2006 develops the saxophone playing and saxophone education overall. I think this will help to promote more young Croatian saxophonists to play. One of the primary goals, of course, of a Saxophone Congress, is to put together, at the same place all kinds of saxophone players, professionals, amateurs, jazz players, pop, with all types of direction in playing. This event is an opportunity to be together to listen to new music, to listen to brand name saxophone players for everyone. I’m looking forward to hearing all you guys, and Arno and Claude again. That will be great and especially for younger saxophonists that’s great because CDs are one thing but live performance is something entirely different.
Dragan Sremec: Also, with the support of the city of Zagreb we would like to put it as much as possible that the Congress is a part of town, not a secluded kind of saxophone sect that nobody knows. That was great in Strasbourg three years ago.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s taking the saxophone into the community.
Dragan Sremec: Yes, yes, as much as possible.
Barry Cockcroft: Are there any other special projects that you’d like to mention that you’re working on or you have planned?
Dragan Sremec: The Congress is spending all my mental energy right now, and after the Congress, there will be a long summer.
Barry Cockcroft: Is there a place where people can find out more about your activities?
Dragan Sremec: That’s a question, but I try to give some message to my students, so they spread around my messages.
Barry Cockcroft: Just one last question, really, after all these years of fabulous contribution to the saxophone both in your country and touring around the world, what do you see is coming next for you in the saxophone?
Dragan Sremec: I know that after this Congress I will be empty. I have my students, of course. My retirement is in 10 years, maybe. As a saxophonist, I would like to have some projects not to play, to repeat some concerts here, here, here. But to play now, we shall play a new concerto. We shall play that. Now, we shall play with some other musicians, just these kind of projects. Of course, if it will be Paris, or Moscow, or something that’s another thing. When you are becoming older, just starting thinking maybe too late, that there are many things in our lives other than our profession. Family, grandchildren, nature, barbecues, good friends.
Barry Cockcroft: I’d like to wish you the best for the coming few months before the Congress. Well, of course, see each other again in Zagreb in July and thanks very much for having a chat this afternoon.
Dragan Sremec: Thank you. Thank you, Barry.