Achieving a performance career as a professional musician is notoriously difficult. So, how did Mak Grgic, a new assistant professor of guitar at the School of Music, go from being a doctoral student at Southern Cal to playing 80-100 concerts a year, commissioning new pieces from composers and being nominated for two Grammys?
In a word: necessity.
“Ten years ago, I was a student in L.A.,” recalls Grgic (pronounced “Gergich”). “And as a student, I was depending a little bit on the support of my parents, in addition to some scholarships that I had applied for. But then, in Slovenia — which is where I come from — there was sort of a delayed crisis from the 2008-09 recession. Suddenly, we were in a little bit of financial trouble. And I’m alone in a big, scary city, you know? I had to learn how to develop a presence pretty quickly.”
Grgic, who made his professional debut in Russia in 2009 at the age of 22, was already a dedicated and serious performer. But he stepped up his networking skills in response to his newfound circumstances and took every opportunity to gig that he could get, both at school and in the community. It paid off in performances as a soloist, in small ensembles and with orchestras. And it gave him the connections to pursue his passion of playing and commissioning new music.
Fast-forward a decade, and Grgic is well positioned to help University of South Carolina students further their own music careers. He’s earned two Grammy nominations, first for the 2021 recording Mak|Bach and then for 2022’s A Night in Upper Town: The Music of Zoran Krajacic, both in the category of best classical instrumental solo album. He’s performed on several continents, toured with k.d. lang, and co-founded two guitar duos. And he has performed and commissioned new works from major composers, including Michael Abels, best known for his score to the Oscar-winning film Get Out.
“Even seven or eight years ago, when things were really starting to pick up, I was absolutely devoted to commissioning new works,” Grgic says. “About 75 percent of my repertoire was new music. So, I would do anything and everything to be able to commission new works: ask friends to help, fundraise myself, talk to prospective donors, apply for grants, etc.”
He succeeded on that initially small level and kept going to higher levels. But even as he succeeded in getting new pieces of music produced, he realized that a part of the equation was missing.
“In the world of new music, a lot of pieces are commissioned — but not many of them are performed again and again,” he says. “And, when one is reinterpreting a piece of music, that music takes time to come to fruition. So, I took a step back and devoted myself to touring pieces that I had commissioned. And there were quite a few, from chamber works to solo pieces.”
As he’s had more and more success, he’s been able to move on to larger commissions. His biggest one yet is Borders by Michael Abels, which had its premiere in the fall of 2022. The theme of the piece is the plight of global refugees; it was inspired by family friends who were Bosnian refugees in the 1990s and made their way to Denmark and eventually Chicago.
To have as a role model an entrepreneurial performer like Grgic — who has not only commissioned new works, but also formed ensembles, established a European guitar festival network and launched a mobile music education game — will be of direct benefit not only to South Carolina's students, but also to the broader musical community.
Two ideas Grgic has on the immediate horizon: a student-led guitar series, and establishing a formal connection between guitar students and composition students to create new guitar pieces.
The guitar series, Grgic says, offers not only a form of community outreach but also “an opportunity for students to learn how to deal practically with organizing and promoting events.” The idea of guitarists and composers working together, meanwhile, helps both groups of students — broadening the repertoire for guitarists and giving composers a chance to write for an instrument that isn’t usually emphasized in their classes.
These are the early days for Grgic’s time at Carolina, as he has only completed one semester of teaching so far. But the possibilities are wide open.
“There’s a lot I want to do, so we’ll see how all that develops in the next few years,” Grgic says. “There are lots of opportunities.”