A Conversation with Matjaz Debeljak

Cynthia Ellis | October 2011

   The NFA Convention this year was the American debut for Slovenian piccolo artist Matjaz Debeljak. He performed on the Friday afternoon High Frequency recital, playing three works by Slovenian composers: Five Graffiti by Aldo Kumar, Ideas by Igor Krivokapic and Sonatina by Peter Kopac. All three pieces were written for Debeljak. Through the years Debeljak has commissioned over 14 works for piccolo including chamber works for piccolo and harp, piccolo and viola, and a piccolo trio with piano, among others. He has performed and recorded many of these works for Radio Slovenia as well as on CDs.
   The Kumar work, Five Graffiti (Debeljak performed movements I, III, and V), takes inspiration from the streets. Composer Aldo Kumar writes of his composition: “Over and over again I find inspiration in the readily drawn and written graffiti on the walls of city streets…. The Graffiti for piccolo and piano are a musical variant of these visual creations, where the piano part represents the wall and the piccolo follows out the lines of a graffito.”
   Sonatina by Peter Kopac is a brief one-movement work which presents the piccolo as a flexible, cute and penetrative instrument in a very short amount of time. The Krivokapic work, Four Ideas, showcases the entire scope of the piccolos’ expressive capabilities in four movements, from the middle register all the way through the top octave.
   Debeljak decided to program all Slovenian works because they would be new to the United States audience (all three were U.S. premieres). “The style has a lot of melodic interest as well as some folk influences which makes them fun to play. Additionally they are quite virtuosic, especially featuring double tonguing, which I enjoy.” 
   Matjaz was born in 1961 and currently plays flute and piccolo in the Slovene National Theatre Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Ljubljana. He also holds a teaching position at the Secondary School in Celje. He graduated from the Academy of Music in Ljubljana under the mentorship of Fredja Rupel in 1994 and also did post-graduate work with her on the piccolo in 2010. He played in the Slovene Police Orchestra, another professional group, for 13 years. “I went to police school for 8 months and received a uniform for this job” Matjaz added. 
   Matjaz is a piccolo specialist and likes to joke: “I never played the flute very well, so I started with piccolo. Starting when I was 9 years old, I played piccolo for two years and then continued with flute. Now, piccolo is always number one. All of my solo recitals and concerts are with piccolo, but of course, I also play the flute when I am in the orchestra.” He also performs with the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra and the Academia Ars Musicae Orchestra. When asked to describe the culture of classical music in his country, Matjaz added that “We have a lot of orchestral concerts here in Slovenia and a lot of chamber music and recitals too.” He appears in various festivals in Belgrade, England, Zagorje, and Croatia, and is helping to organize the first European Piccolo Festival, August 27-28, 2011.
   One of his most memorable orchestral concerts was under the baton of the formidable Carlos Kleiber. “We performed Brahms 4th Symphony which was one of the most important experiences I have ever had, but it was quite stressful at the same time.”
   Matjaz always begins practicing on the flute first. “I move to piccolo after warming up on the flute. If I start on piccolo, then the flute feels so big. The need for support is greater on the piccolo and the finger coordination is different as are the lips. Each instrument demands a slightly unique approach.”
   Matjaz finds inspiration in intense practice and also imagines a story for each piece he plays. “Imagination is so important. I enjoy hearing sounds in the forest when I run with my Siberian husky, and this too is inspirational.”
   Debeljak is married to Ariana, his wife of 22 years, who is an opera singer. They have a daughter who plays flute and studies ballet at the MOJCA dance school. He enjoys cycling from May to September and when the weather forces him inside, he studies karate. “Of course this karate is without the fighting. It is for recreation only, but helps me with body control and also self-confidence.”