From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY THÉRÉSE WASSILY SABA

In a young musician’s life, the transition from struggling for recognition to adjusting to having achieved success can be tricky. One guitarist going through that right now is Sabrina Vlaskalic, a Serbian who has won many competitions, has a teaching post at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in Groningen, The Netherlands, and at the same time is working towards her PhD at Guildhall School of Music, London. On top of that, she just released her first CD, Debut, on which she covers a broad range of composers, from Aguado to Falla to Henze to Brouwer, and more.

I first heard Sabrina Vlaskalic in a solo recital at the Koblenz International Guitar Festival in Germany, as part of their Young Artist platform. Those concerts are always inspiring—the fine young players of today all have ample technique and plenty of fresh vision in their interpretation of the repertoire. What impressed me most when I heard Sabrina was her broad range of expression: from the most delicate and intimate, caressing pianissimos to almost frighteningly powerful fortissimos—where I feared for the survival of the guitar—all at the service of her musical interpretation. Accompanying this powerful expressiveness was a strong sense of intention—she knew exactly what she wanted to say.

I was surprised to learn that someone whose life appears so focused and dedicated to the guitar might well have taken quite a different direction. “When I was a child I was sent to a psychologist because I was one of those restless children,” she told me. “Then they sent me to have my IQ measured and they asked me to remember a huge sequence of numbers, which I repeated without a problem. The psychologist asked me how I did that and I told her that number two is yellow and number seven is green … and it is still the combination that I bet on in poker because I really like it! Then the psychologist explained to me that I had something called synesthesia. I have a primary form, where you connect letters and numbers to colors. I went to state competitions in physics and mathematics, so I really had the chance to choose careers between those areas and the guitar. Often my research today is related to acoustics, so physics is still part of my life.

“Later on, when I started playing,” she continues, “there was a space where color could be inserted with particular tones, and once I started to comprehend what music is—that it wasn’t only the movement of fingers—then I started to fill in the blanks with colors. And I put those colors in the scores in the way that I see them with my mind’s eye. When I play hyper-complex music, normally I have a sequence of colors very clearly organized in my mind. For me, C major is red or F major is brown and all those keys have a specific nuance, and they don’t match Scriabin’s or anyone else’s colors—Scriabin also had synesthesia. I use it a lot with my students. Of course, I never explain that this is synesthesia, but often, if I see they are having memory problems, I color their notes.”

Do we all have a certain level of synesthesia then? “Yes, I do think so, but you might not develop it because it is a language within a language, within a thought process. Once you become aware of it, then it can be extremely useful.”

Sabrina Vlaskalic Classical Guitar score markup

Color-coded markup of a score

Sabrina says the Croatian guitarist Zoran Dukic has played an important role in her expressive development as a guitarist, and suggests that the path he illuminated for her is one many might learn from. “He never pushed me with technique, because I was already very skilled when I started with him, but he pushed me more with listening. So, for example, I had a lot of exercises where I had to imitate the sound of Julian Bream playing Sevilla to the finest detail. [Fernando Sor’s] Andante Largo is another piece he tortured me with playing, insisting that I imitate Ida Presti’s playing. He wanted me to have exactly the same type of sound, the same type of vibrato, the length of the notes; even if there was a mistake in the recording, my playing had to be exactly the same. It had to be on a level of absolute perfection. Eventually, after practicing that week after week you end up in the positions that these guitarists had used when they were playing. So this enabled me to have a greater flexibility in my technique, and it was all based on listening.”

Competitions can be important stepping-stones in a musician’s career, as they were for Dukic, and Vlaskalic has also won many, but she notes, “I was never really excited about doing competitions. I used competitions for self-criticism—I never used them to be ‘better’ than someone else. I really hate competing, and I am actually my biggest enemy because I compete with myself. So when I competed, it was about me. And after winning, I was excited for not longer than about two or three seconds. Those competition wins were not ‘victories’ for me because those were not the battles that I was fighting. For me, the battle was, ‘What do I have to say?’ which until last year, was nothing. I had never made a recording until last year because I thought I had nothing to say as an artist, which might be an unusual thing to say, for someone who has won a lot of competitions and who is performing so much.

“What Zoran did for me was open my ears. Once, when I was playing Brouwer’s Sonata I for him, I was playing a typical Brouwer melodic fragment, and Zoran said to me, ‘This is out of tune.’ So I started tuning my guitar and then he said, ‘No, your melody on one string is out of tune.’ It was the first time that I understood that my seconds and my thirds were not in tune because of the angle and position of my hands. Suddenly, I realized that during the performance I have to retune my guitar, and after you do that for months and years, it becomes so dramatic, and Zoran has this in his playing. So Zoran gave me the biggest gift because he showed me that the guitar is not a perfectly tuned instrument and that you have to tune it during your playing. That’s what my PhD dissertation is about.”

Our interview took place on the evening before she was to present a lecture at the Guildhall. “My lecture’s called The Art of Playing on the Guitar—it’s my PhD topic. That title has already evolved into the more academic title of Enhancing Tone Control in Classical Guitar as a Performance Strategy: Critical Exploration of the Fundamental Aspects of Technique.” In order to achieve a high level of performance, a lot of groundwork goes into polishing the minute aspects of technique, but in Sabrina’s case, her focus on the “art of playing on the guitar” had an added motivator.

“Basically, when I was nine years old, I had an accident with the middle fingers on my right hand. I had to have a ten-hour operation and then I had no nail on that finger for about a year-and-a-half after that, but I was still playing the guitar. So ever since then, I have been avoiding using my middle finger as much as I could because, you can see, it’s curved. It’s the only one that’s curved, and it wants to stay on the string all the time. So I have three nails that grow in different directions and in three different shapes. They are uncontrollable, and especially when I was younger, that was a big problem. So I decided to remove the usage of that finger from my technique: I played everything with p, i, and a. Actually, I do use the m finger successfully now, but when I started using the m finger again after the injury, there was this clicking sound. And I have spent years and years and years trying to remove that click and now I have it under control in the way that I want it.”

Having finally reached a certain level of self-satisfaction, Sabrina felt ready to record her first album in 2016, which took place in a historic church in the Dutch town of Fransum. “The only thing that I insisted on was that it had to reflect who I am on the concert stage,” she says. “It had to be exciting, so I told my sound engineer [Michael Megens] that I only wanted to record pieces from the beginning to the end.”

Her recording begins with the early 19th-century composer Dionisio Aguado’s Introduction and Rondo Brilliante, Op. 2. “I think my middle name is Sabrina ‘Aguado’ Vlaskalic, because this is a piece that I have been playing for ten years or so—for my entire career. It challenges your stamina and your strength all the time. It is also the piece that I continuously purify, more and more, and I work on the dynamic aspects of it. For about a year or more, I have really been into dynamics! I reorganize the pieces that I play, again and again.

“My taste in music is around the feeling of saudade,” she offers. “In the Balkan language, it matches sevdah. It’s not just a sadness—you feel sad but you also accept that you feel sad, so you don’t fight it any more. It’s is like standing still and being locked in that moment. When I have the freedom to choose my repertoire, I go straight to dark music, like Falla’s Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Debussy [which is on the CD] or an arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une enfante défunte.

“For me, Falla’s Homenaje is probably the masterpiece of the guitar repertoire. I have never heard a piece so full of content. That is what the guitar is, and I have to say that the reason that I started playing this piece of Falla is because I was listening to Julian Bream’s performance and he had a subito piano within the melodic movement—it was a priceless detail. There are a lot of players who follow the rhythm and there are a lot of players who follow the sadness, but to have this duality at the same time, this is a massive challenge. When I heard Bream doing this, I was completely blown away.”

What Sabrina Vlasakalic Plays

“I play an Andres D. Marvi guitar, which is a very sensitive instrument that allows me to create the music the way I want it. Marvi’s guitars have their own character, but are very flexible and will adapt to the player in the way he/she ‘teaches’ them to sound. Another reason I play Marvi is the quality of sound. It reminds me of the sound of the old Spanish masters, but with a little bit of a twist in the bass, which is thicker than the one on Fleta’s guitars, for example. I should be getting a new guitar from Andres soon, at the beginning of May and I am very looking forward to it. As for strings, I am a D’Addario artist since 2012 and I play EJ46 (hard tension) strings.”