Accordion star Jelena Milojevic straddles cultures

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For now, the Balkans are peaceful, but it’s still a ticklish matter trying to determine who’s who in the area that was once called Yugoslavia. Asked how to describe her ethnicity, musician Jelena Milojevic pauses for careful thought. It’s a complex question, she allows, on the line from her Victoria home. Hers has been a blended family for three generations, with both sets of her grandparents straddling the line that now separates Serbs from Croats.

“Whatever you say—Serbian or Croatian—is right,” she says. “Maybe it’s best to say both. Or you could say I’m a Serbian accordionist who was born in Croatia.

“But now,” she adds with a laugh, “I’m actually a Canadian accordionist!”

We’re lucky to have her—although, on the whole, we don’t quite know it yet. Milojevic is a rarity: not only is she a serious practitioner of the accordion in a country where that instrument is usually relegated to polka bands and party music, she’s chosen to specialize in the contemporary classical idiom.

There’s been a tendency for Canadians to see her as an ambassador for eastern European music, she points out, but it’s not just Slavic and Russian composers who are raising the bar for her instrument.

“There are various composers all over the world who are writing for classical accordion,” Milojevic says, in her intense, lightly accented English.

“As a musician, I always like to play music that’s reflecting me,” she continues. “And normally I look for music that’s very deep, that’s concerned with emotions and passions. Also I’m looking for music that’s not very easy on the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels. And I look for diversity of any kind in picking my repertoire.”

When Milojevic comes to West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre on Friday (November 27), she’ll repeat one of the highlights of her March concert at Christ Church Cathedral, Victor Vlasov’s sombre and otherworldly Five Views on Gulag Archipelago. This time, though, she’s branching out to include some North American works, such as the American composer Chris Jarrett’s The Last Dawn of Anne Frank.

“He wrote that piece for me, and we’re actually collaborating, because he’s writing more pieces for me at this time,” she notes.

With help from the well-respected Jarrett—who also happens to be jazz pianist Keith’s younger brother—Milojevic is clearly settling into her new life on this continent. But there’s one thing that’s bothering her, and that’s the tendency of some North American musicians to crown themselves with titles such as “world’s champion accordionist”.

“I’d like to say something about that,” she asserts. “I find that title ”˜world’s champion’ kind of disturbing. It equates music with sport, and that’s inappropriate.”

Milojevic acknowledges the role that music competitions play in assessing talent, and concedes that she’s won the occasional prize herself. But at this point, she’s more concerned with art than with accolades. “Competition,” she says, “is just one step in a musician’s education—not something that should be glorified.”

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