The Balkan Strings Trio Play The New Vic
Famed Family Act Plays Guitar Fusion Instrumentals
Music without borders — it’s what the Trio Balkan Strings create. Their song “Smoky Swing” begins familiarly, trilling in with echoes of a quintessential Deep Purple riff, before it embarks on its own journey, taking the listener to romantic sonic vistas of Belgrade boulevards and Balkan peaks. The sounds and sensations are so rich and romantic, and the transition from one musical language to another is so fluent that it comes as quite a surprise to find out that the trio often spins tunes like these on only one guitar, with six hands.
The family trio of Zoran and sons Nikola and Zeljko Starcevic, who bring their world-renowned guitar artistry to The New Vic on Wednesday, May 18, create intricate and imaginative guitar music that is as evocative as it is enjoyable. Theirs is almost a kind of musical storytelling. Bonded by blood and tandem playing alike, their closeness as kin and collaborators brings listeners closer to exotic crossroads between traditional Serbian music, gypsy jazz, rock ’n’ roll, Latin, and swing.
The band describes their sound as one that is open-ended, open to the listener’s experience. “If you write music with no words, there must be some story, and with no words the audience can imagine their own story,” Zoran said. “I think it is an advantage of instrumental music: You can feel the music in many ways. If you have some love story, you are a little bit limited; you must follow the name of a girl or something. But instrumental music has no borders.”
“There’s an element of play, because we also like to show how music, especially instrumental music, is all connected,” Zeljko said. “We like to put it all together, and we also like to present some well-known stuff in a completely different way.”
The trio aims to make music that is both fun and familiar, interesting and inventive. All three Starcevics are composers themselves, and each contributes arrangements to their sets. While there’s not too much improvisation, they do leave a little bit of wiggle room for moments of spontaneity and modification.
The band came together as Zeljko and Nikola studied classical music in school. The two approached their dad, who had grown up learning rock songs, and they tried playing as a trio at home. Zoran said it was “very interesting to mix their style” — “and a little bit strange” — with his rock upbringing, but the strange fusion of ingredients worked. While “it’s very hard to keep the family together” as a band, Zoran said, what with both younger Starcevics having families of their own to raise, the three agree that their family bonds are what make them especially in sync.
“In any job, there are hard times, but I see this family connection is what keeps us together in spite of those hard times,” Nikola said. “All three of us love this music. It’s really a challenge to deal with something that is not commercial, and I think because we are family, we keep doing this in spite that it can be very, very hard.”
“You must learn every day, and I am a grandfather, so at first I learn to enjoy every moment in my life with family. It is my privilege to play with my sons,” Zoran said.
With each new concert, the trio wins more accolades and recognition, including a performance at the Copper Mountain Guitar Town festival in Colorado alongside the likes of guitar legends Steve Vai and the John Jorgenson Quintet. Zoran said the Trio feels honored to stand among them. “There are thousands, maybe millions, of guitar players in the world, and we have our spot because we have an original style,” he said. “It is our gift to our audience, to share that night with us and to have a night to remember. It’s a privilege for us and the audience to be there together.”
The Trio Balkan Strings play Wednesday, May 18, at 8 p.m., at The New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). For more information, call the New Vic box office at (805) 965-5400 or see ensembletheatre.com.