Grad student launches early music career

Rich, vibrating chords fuse into a whimsical melody, crisp as morning air. It’s such descriptions that sum up the aural confections of Slovenian guitarist Mak Grgic, a graduate student at the USC Thornton School of Music, who stands at the cusp of his blooming career, brimming with talent and ready to take the music world by storm.

Slovenian serenade · Thornton student Mak Grgic has already jumpstarted a promising career. The 25-year-old already has awards from festivals, such as “Luigi Mozzani” and Pacific Guitar Festival, under his belt. – | Photo courtesy of Mak Grgic

At 25, Grgic is well on his way to greater heights. Since his Russian debut in 2009 with the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, his acclaim and recognition have only grown, especially after The Washington Post ran a review of Grgic’s performance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in October. Praising Grgic for exploring the works of baroque lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss “with real intelligence,” the article proclaimed Grgic’s “superb, finely detailed reading” of Weiss’ “Passacaglia in D Major” as “the high point of the evening.”

Even without these positive reviews,  a background of performing at stellar worldwide venues — not to mention the many pieces he’s recorded, the most recent being music for the film Regrets of White Camellias — gives Grgic the power to stand alone. From the Grande Auditorium di Espinho in Portugal to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. (where he performed as a guest of American classical guitarist Christopher Parkening), Grgic has impressed, playing with world-class artists, such as the Assad Brothers and cello master Joshua Roman. Recently, Grgic won first prize at the Guitar Competition “Luigi Mozzani” in Italy as well as the Pacific Guitar Festival and Competition 2011 in California.

Despite having traveled far and wide, Grgic has found a home in USC. Compared to the stricter, efficiency-driven teaching style of the institutions he previously attended, Grgic says USC is a breath of fresh air.

“Coming here eased up the edges. It was the first time I actually started breathing and not worrying about someone pointing a finger at me for mistakes,” Grgic said. “[Consequently], I became a more stable player as well —  it’s just done more good than what I would have expected. It’s the environment I’m in, surrounded by so many great guitarists carrying the legacy of just enjoying music.”

William Kanengiser, of the Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, guides Grgic as his music instructor at USC. Grgic’s mentor of almost two years, Kanengiser has acknowledged him as an exceptional musician.

“Mak possesses the ability to be expressive, technically brilliant. … He’s able to find personal expression within the constraints of the classical form,” Kanengiser said. “He’s already on his way to having a career, he’s performed for series of concerts and won competitions, but what he’s doing is finding his artistic voice and personality. That takes a very talented student and musician to the level of being an artist, and that’s what he’s working towards.”

Surprisingly, prowess on guitar had not always been the goal for Grgic. His love for the guitar began serendipitously with a stroll in the park. On that fateful day, a 10-year-old Grgic passed the music school in Slovenia with his father while auditions were happening — and in that moment, he became “intrigued.”

Yet even after this encounter, guitar was not a priority.

“I didn’t even want to play guitar, to be quite honest,” Grgic said. “My dad was the one who initiated the choice of instrument. He decided that violin was too loud for the beginning, and the piano was too big for the apartment. He just said, ‘Here’s a guitar, learn a song or two, learn to sing along with it.’ Today, I’m happy that it worked out as it did.”

After beginning to play the guitar at age 11, Grgic continued to juggle music school and normal school on a daily basis and even kept up with his avid passion for the martial arts. The turning point for his music career, however, came unexpectedly at the end of his teenage years. At age 19, after breaking his thumb in a fight tournament, he decided to pursue music and music alone.

“Basically, right then I said, ‘Okay, let’s decide what I want to do,’” he said.

Following his decision, Grgic pushed forward in pursing his musical career, earning a bachelor’s degree in music at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria.

Grgic notes that his career path has properly served a passion for music that comes as naturally as breathing for the young performer. It’s also a career that Grgic won’t tire of anytime soon.

“You just feel it. You just go for it. The more excited you are, the more it will show,” he said. “Regardless of looking ahead [at] what’s going to happen, I think it’s always important to do what you enjoy. If you manage to integrate that into your profession, you can’t really ever get bored or discouraged or sad about something you love. Challenges are easily dealt with if you enjoy what you’re doing it. I work from when I wake up until I go to bed, but I don’t mind because I love music.”

In fact, when it comes to picking favorites among pieces, Grgic is always between a rock and a hard place.

“With pieces, if you find quality and intrigue in them, it’ll be one of your favorites,” Grgic said. “But to have a favorite piece, that’s literally impossible.”

The upcoming months are booked with a slew of performances, many of which are organized through the Da Camera Society, a prestigious performing arts foundation in Los Angeles that has named Grgic a Young Artist in Residence. Besides a performance with the legendary Assad Brothers in Denver coming soon, Grgic will also play with the renowned JACK Quartet in the premiere of Philip Glass Ensemble member David Crowell.

John Richards, founding violinist of the JACK Quartet, worked with Grgic two summers ago in 2011 while premiering a new guitar quintet by Slovenian composer Nina Senk.

“Mak is a charming performer and a wonderful guitarist,” Richards said. “We had a wonderful time playing with him and we look forward to getting to work with him again.”

Though all arrows point to more success in the future, Grgic stays grounded.

“I have ways to go. I’m just working my way up,” he said. “As a pupil learning from the big names, I take what I think is good and implement it. I have to borrow little things, strive to take them and make them my own.”

One thing is for sure — his potential is the real deal. After working with Grgic on past performances, Gary Sheldon, conductor of the Miami City Ballet, can attest to not only his individual talent but his innate ability to collaborate with other musicians — a characteristic that will undoubtedly serve Grgic well.

“Ultimately, music is about sharing and playing together and finding something deeper than just the notes on the page, and Mak has an ability to do that — not just as a soloist but as a performer with orchestras,” Sheldon said. “He listens, he adapts and he makes an experience a truly shared experience.”