Conductor Nikolina Kovacevic’s Island footprint

Nikolina Kovacevic found a home away from home on Martha's Vineyard. — Paul Donnelly

Nikolina Kovacevic arrived on Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in the summer of 2015. She came from Serbia, and like many other J-1s on-Island, she wanted work and to learn about American life and language. She also came here to further her life’s passion — music and art.

Nikolina was in high school when she realized she wanted to be a conductor. She saw a picture of an old man standing on a chair in the sand facing the sea. He was conducting the waves of the ocean like a symphony. Nikolina held this image close to her heart.

She went to university in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, and studied conducting. Many students in Serbia spend their summers relaxing or traveling, and it’s less common to work during the three-month recess, according to Nikolina.

“That’s why many of us come here,” she said. “Here, everyone works. It’s not uncommon to see a 10-year-old kid working. Even if it’s just polishing glasses, everyone works.”

During that first summer in 2015, she got a job at State Road and Beach Road restaurants. To weave music into her Island life, she also joined in the Community Sing at the Tabernacle.

Choir organizer Bob Cleasby recognized Nikolina’s talent and passion as a musician, and invited her to create a short performance to showcase the traditional music of her country. The performance was scheduled for Illumination Night, but Nikolina was called in to work, and the show was postponed. She was disappointed, but wouldn’t leave her employers high and dry. She arrived at Beach Road restaurant and learned who she’d be serving that night — President Barack Obama.

“It was such an honor to be in the presence of an American president,” Nikolina said. “It worked out that my show was canceled.”

Her performance was rescheduled for the following weekend, where she conducted a 20-minute show for a crowd of about 2,000 people. Voices and instruments came together to celebrate Serbian culture. “It was a full audience of American people enjoying Serbian music,” she said. “After the performance, everyone wanted to talk to me. People were so excited about Serbian music and culture. It was one of the nicest nights of my life.”

According to Nikolina, traditional Serbian music is a fusion of jazz with flute and piano. Nikolina sings, conducts, and plays the flute, piano, and violin. She’s learning how to play the kaval — a traditional Serbian instrument similar to the flute, but with a deeper sound.

A week later, Beach Road called Nikolina in for another special night. Benjamin Zander, one of the world’s most renowned conductors, would be dining at the Vineyard Haven restaurant. “He’s one of my favorite conductors ever, and we’re still in touch,” Nikolina said.

She returned home to complete another year of university before coming back to the Island for a second summer of hard work and growth. She picked up more hours at State Road and Beach Road, but still made time for music and art, and dabbled in modeling.

“A girl from Vineyard Equestrian asked me to model for her website,” she said. “That was so special to me, and I’ll always have those photos to remember.”

Nikolina finished her degree the following year, and graduated this past May. “A very special family from Chilmark came to my graduation in Belgrade,” she said. “It was the greatest graduation gift.”

Nikolina’s on-Island friends have become family. She returned this past summer to work her regular jobs, and picked up shifts at Linda Jean’s. On her days off, she wakes at 6 am.

“I want to breathe this place in,” she said. “I like to be in nature, swimming and kayaking, and doing things for myself. I want to feel the spirit of this country, and connect with its people.”

On one day off, she worked with photographer Paul Donnelly to recreate the photograph from her high school memory that inspired her to be a conductor. “I called Paul and asked him if he had an old chair to bring to the shoot,” she said. “I had this picture in my head, and it was like a dream to make it real.”

Nikolina left the Island on Tuesday, after an emotional weekend of goodbyes. She’ll spend a couple of days in Boston, and about a week in New York, before flying back to Serbia. Over the next year, she plans to apply to masters’ programs for music, and dreams of being a student in America — preferably Massachusetts, where her Island home isn’t far.