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Come to hear the music, not to see the star

15/12/2007

Sofia Music Weeks 2007

On the back of the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia, painted bright blue, there is written, in white and dark blue, large and small letters: "Zoals de koelte ’s nachts langs lelies, en langs rozen" (“Like the coolness at night around lilies, and around roses”), and the rest of Jan Hanlo’s poem This is how I feel you are as well. It makes you suspect a warm, special bond with Bulgaria, but Dutch isn’t the only foreign language on Bulgarian walls. In anticipation of its joining the European Union, nine member states adopted a wall in Sofia, to present a poem in their national language on it. In 2004 the Netherlands, who came up with the project, were the first to carry out this idea on a prominent location in the old city centre. Now that Bulgaria has been part of the EU since January 1, 2007, the Netherlands are further strengthening the ties with a whole series of cultural activities.

Using the motto BG-NL: a Cultural Celebration, Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer and the all-female band C.O.E.D. played a concert in Sofia in March, at the largest hall in Southeast Europe. Two weeks later the Nederlands Dans Theater performed at the same hall. In June, it was percussionist Tatiana Koleva’s and saxophonist Rutger van Otterloo’s turn, their concerts and workshops also forming part of the annual Sofia Music Weeks. They played in much more intimate venues, this Dutch contribution was of a somewhat more modest nature, although it was highly adventurous. Exactly what festival programmer Momchil Georgiev needed to freshen up his Music Weeks, by now in their 38th edition.

Sofia Music Weeks
The largest auditorium in Southeast Europe boasts 3880 seats and is one of the thirteen halls of the Culture Palace, a colossal complex from the communist era that lasted from 1944 until 1989. The ground lost by the People’s Republic of Bulgaria during those 45 years hasn’t been regained by a long shot, but the Bulgarians’ need for progress is great, at least in Sofia. As is their curiosity about art on a high level, even about modern dance. The NDT’s performance, with works by Jiri Kylian and house choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon, drew more than three thousand spectators in the capital, and the tour that followed was also a big success. The new music from the Netherlands, for the time being, drew crowds not quite so large.

Tatiana Koleva, the Dutch percussionist of Bulgarian descent, a specialist on the marimba, would initially play a concert with the Cascais-Oeiras Chamber Orchestra from Portugal, and give a master class for percussionists. But one thing led to another. Programmer Georgiev appointed Koleva artist in residence of the Music Weeks. A workshop for composers was added. Saxophonist Rutger van Otterloo, with whom Koleva forms a saxophone-percussion-duo, was invited for a concert of work by mostly Dutch composers. In the meantime, composer Peter Dundakov, a 2006 graduate of the Rotterdam Conservatory, organized a concert of Dutch music for Bulgarian choirs and several instrumentalists – including, once again, Tatiana Koleva. Finally, Van Otterloo and Dimitar Bodurov, another Rotterdam graduate, were added to the Sofia Music Week’s program as an improvising piano-saxophone duo.

Whole series of allegros, moderatos and non troppos from centuries long past fill the pages of the festival book, alongside pictures of distinguished gentlemen and graceful ladies from ensembles, choirs and orchestras, mostly hailing from Bulgaria itself. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Sieben Worte from 1982 is one of the few recent pieces. The first ever performance in Bulgaria by an Irish harpist, Janet Harbison playing traditionals, psalms and her own work, could be called a surprise for the Bulgarians. But there is no denying it: the program parts of a truly modern cut came from the Netherlands.

wednesday
The best concert hall in Sofia is called the Bulgaria Concert Hall, and that’s where Tatiana Koleva performed on June 5, 2007, as a soloist with the Portuguese chamber orchestra Cascais-Oeiras. Now, more than a week later, she shares the stage with Rutger van Otterloo of the small or chamber music hall in the same building. Of the more than two hundred seats, a little less than half are occupied. An elderly lady with a light orange hairdo doesn’t return after intermission, all the others show themselves to be impressed by the music from the Netherlands. It includes the virtuoso solo piece < > poco expr. which Mayke Nas wrote for reed player David Kweksilber, now played impeccably by Van Otterloo on soprano saxophone; the impressive percussion solo Dithyrambos by Calliope Tsoupaki, written for Koleva; Linea, a brand new piece by Ron Ford for the Koleva & Van Otterloo duo. After intermission a wonderful adaptation of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece is heard, as well as the overwhelmingly aggressive Grab it! by Jacob ter Veldhuis, in the version for saxophone and drums. In advance, the listeners could hardly know what to expect; judging by their applause and the pleasantly feverish atmosphere, they are experiencing the night of their lives.

“To me, playing in Bulgaria has a special significance”, Tatiana Koleva says afterwards, “I definitely want to contribute to musical developments here. They have probably never heard this music here before.” Koleva was born in Varna, studied music in Sofia, Rotterdam and The Hague. In the Netherlands she is known by now as a first-rate percussionist, and in Germany and France she has also scooped up prestigious music awards. The Female Quartet Electra and the duo with Van Otterloo are her steady combinations, as a soloist she plays with prominent new music ensembles all over the world. She has made her mark in Bulgaria as well: as early as 1988 Koleva was awarded First Prize in the Svetoslav Obretenov National Bulgarian Competition, in 1998 Bulgarian National Radio nominated her for the honorary title Musician of the Year. Koleva loves passing on the knowledge, skill and experience she’s gained during her studies and performances to the musicians and composers, students and listeners in her native country, where there is a lack of decent instruments, and the music stands are made of wood and iron.

thursday
Originally, a continuance of the composers’ workshop had been planned for this afternoon, and an extra guest performance by Van Otterloo for the evening, outside the festival, at a jazz club on Vasil Levski Boulevard. But at the request of the participants the workshop has been moved to the next day, and the jazz concert turns out to have been cancelled. A good opportunity to find out about the actual involvement and contribution to the BG-NL project by the embassy in Sofia. According to her business card, public diplomacy and press and cultural affairs are Diana Zapryanova’s responsibilities at the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ Embassy. She prepared the entire BG-NL program, she carefully guards its proceedings, and is more than happy to provide a detailed explanation. As long as she isn’t quoted directly, because Zapryanova is not an official spokesperson.

The presentations of Dutch art and culture during this year of the Bulgarian entry into the EU are far from the first Dutch cultural activities in Bulgaria. For instance, successful collaborative projects in the past years by the Dutch Introdans and the Bulgarian National Ballet occasioned the invitation to the Nederlands Dans Theater this time. Every year Dutch musicians, visual artists, theatre companies and writers apply for embassy support in performing or exhibiting their work in Bulgaria. The embassy advises the applicants on the acquisition of subsidies in the Netherlands, but also has a modest budget of its own to spend on interesting initiatives. The Bulgarian state authorities only support presentations of Bulgarian art and culture. But thanks to the Minister of Culture, who still regularly treads the boards as an actor, a lot of money is being spent on renovating theatres and concert halls. Local authorities don’t provide funds for Dutch activities, but do make theatres, halls or exhibition spaces available. Everything else must be produced by the organizing bodies, by Dutch funds and the embassy.

To celebrate Bulgaria’s entry into the EU, HGIS allotted extra means for 2007. This made it possible to invite the Nederlands Dans Theater, C.O.E.D and Candy Dulfer, Lucas van Merwijk’s Latin band with singer Izaline Calister. Her colleague Denise Jannah opened the Bansko Jazz Festival in August, with the Bulgarian National Broadcasting Company Orchestra. For a change, there was a lot of cash this year for splendid examples of Dutch culture, attractive to a large audience into the bargain. A pity, though, that the original setup paid no attention to contemporary, a little less accessible musical contributions from the Low Countries. On Koleva’s initiative and thanks to support from Gaudeamus and the Fonds voor de Amateurkunst en Podiumkunsten (FAPK, Fund for the Amateur and Podium Arts), that new music was eventually heard after all.

friday
As well attended as Koleva’s workshops were last week, so scant is the participation in the composers’ workshop, that is taking place today. It’s held in the Union of Bulgarian Composers building. Comfortable, little red easy chairs along the walls, a disorderly stack of cd’s next to a modern stereo system, a cabinet for glasses but no drinks. Three composers report in, they get advice from the Dutch about writing for saxophone and percussion. Succinct pointers are enough for them, so within forty-five minutes everyone is back on the street. Which certainly doesn’t mean the end of the exchange, for at concerts and in the bar the Bulgarians and Dutch run into each other all the time.

Later that afternoon Koleva and a fellow percussionist are standing behind their instruments, next to two Bulgarians with a cello and a double bass, in an ample rehearsal room of the Philip Koutev National Folklore Ensemble. The female choir of this ensemble is also present in full force; led by conductor Georgi Genov they are rehearsing new pieces by three composers who graduated in Rotterdam. Razor-sharp voices sound, singing piercing dissonances, arrangements based on Bulgarian vocal traditions. The Rotterdam composers have used this timbre as sound material, as a special instrument. For the singers who can’t read music it takes some getting used to, but the result is admirable. For Saturday’s concert in the large Bulgarian Concert Hall a second choir has been programmed, from the provinces, made up of considerably younger girls who do read music.

Tonight Van Otterloo and pianist Dimitar Bodurov play a newly added concert of improvised music at the National Museum. Attendance is low, the festival organization has hardly advertised the evening. But the people who are there once again appear pleasantly surprised.

saturday
A television broadcast unit hides the entrance to the concert hall from view, the national Bulgarian broadcasting company is recording the two women’s choirs who, in addition to the usual arranged Bulgarian folk music, will also sing new Dutch pieces. Against the background of a gigantic pipe organ, and clad in colorful traditional costumes from various regions, the singers bravely tackle their unusual task. Dutch composer Paul van Brugge is performing himself, reciting the Shakespeare texts that served as inspiration for a piece featuring choir and piano. In the other Dutch pieces percussion, cello and double bass are heard in different combinations. There are surprising moments, but musical highlights do not occur.

The idea for these compositions came from composer Peter Dundakov, Bulgarian by birth and a graduate of the Rotterdam Conservatory where he studied under Van Brugge. Dundakov approached the programmer of the Music Weeks, Georgiev responded enthusiastically and Dundakov persuaded some of his old fellow students and his former teacher to write a piece. A little less than a week before the concert the composers visited the choirs to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on site. Only then did it turn out they were hardly up to their assignment. Two of the compositions were completely unsingable for them, including Van Brugge’s. He was forced to withdraw his piece, but thought of a solution on the spot, so that the entire festival wouldn’t be a washout. He recited the texts himself, instead of the originally prescribed soprano.

Thanks to the drawing power of the Koutev choir and Bulgarian television, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians will become acquainted with this daring experiment, which unfortunately wasn’t the most interesting Dutch contribution to the festival.

sunday
The festival will last another week, but the Dutch contributions are behind us. Early in the evening, in the noisy lobby of the Grand Hotel Bulgaria, Momchil Georgiev talks about his tasks, plans and ambitions. This music journalist and program maker for national radio, musician and organizer was a board member of the Sofia Music Weeks for ten years before, more than a year ago now, he became the festival’s programmer. Georgiev’s predecessor retired at 77, “mainly because of the difficult financing of the festival, the eternal tension between national and local authorities”. Getting the subsidies together is now also one of Georgiev’s tasks, so he wants to make the Sofia Music Weeks more attractive to authorities and sponsors, advertisers and the public. “That means more visibility, more promotion, and finding new ways of interesting and innovative programming”.

That innovative programming can consist, for instance, of inviting Bulgarian musicians living abroad, presenting musicians and ensembles who haven’t been heard in Bulgaria before, programming unknown music from abroad, making stimulating combinations. Georgiev has already made a cautious start. Thus, the chamber orchestra from Portugal premiered the Concierto Barocco by Bulgarian composer Gheorghi Arnaoudov. The music by Portuguese composers was undoubtedly also new to many Bulgarian listeners, as was that by Sofia Gubaidulina and the Irish harpist. Georgiev: "I also added, for the first the time in Bulgaria, a very picturesque, informative parallel program with workshops and seminars. The subjects vary from music and modern media, to the daily work of an orchestra. We have a seminar, presentations of books and exhibitions, it can be anything that, one way or another, is connected to music.

"It was really a challenge to organize this program with an artist in residence, who played a concert with an orchestra, a concert with her own duo, with the Bulgarian choirs like last night, and presented workshops too. Tatiana is a percussion artist known the world over, she is Bulgarian, she can combine different styles and genres of music, and explain it all as well. Percussion and saxophones are exotic instruments for every composer here, they prefer to write music for regular ensembles or symphony orchestra. In Bulgaria we don't have percussionists or saxophone players like Tatiana and Rutger, so nobody gets the idea to write for these instruments. The workshop was meant to provoke. If just one composer was provoked it is okay for me, two would be great. For the Bulgarian choirs it was a totally new experience to work with modern composers. The result may not have been as fantastic as we would have liked, but it was acceptable. And an experience of great importance for the conductors and the singers, the audience and the press, because most of them don't like modern music. They have never had the chance to hear much of it; if this festival doesn't present it, nobody in Bulgaria does. We need to educate the people by presenting premieres and new music. The Sofia Music Weeks is not a festival of the biggest stars, this is about music. People must come to hear the music, not to see the star."

A breach in the dyke, the promotion of Dutch music abroad, 2007, ISBN/EAN: 978-90-812526-1-4, Muziekcentrum Nederland (order at info@muziekcentrumnederland.nl).

© Peter van Amstel - 2007