Music From the Balkans: A Duo Interview with Miroslav Hristov and Vladimir Valjareviç Print E-mail
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Written by David K. Nelson   
Friday, 28 September 2012

Music From the Balkans: A Duo Interview with Miroslav Hristov and Vladimir Valjareviç

A new compact disc on the Centaur label (CRC 3208) of Music From the Balkans occasioned an interview with the artists: Miroslav Hristov, a Bulgarian-born violinist, and pianist Vladimir Valjarević, who hails from Tuzla in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina (he refers to himself as a Bosnian-American).

The disc has many attractions for those with a taste for exploring pungent and exotic repertoire for violin and piano: a compact two-movement sonata from 1972–74 by the “father of Albanian classical music,” Çesk Zadeja (1927–97); a taut and demanding (and more substantial than its title would suggest) Petite Suite No. 2 by the Greek master Nikos Skalkottas (1904–49); Eastern Chapel Meditations (with a subtle use of pre-recorded sounds) by Aleksandra Vrebalov (b.1970), a Serb now living in New York City; the wistful “Song” from a Bulgarian Suite by Pantcho Vladigerov (1899–1978); and George Enescu’s (1881–1955) intricate and rapturous Sonata No. 3, “In Popular Romanian Style.”

My e-mailed questions and areas of inquiry were aimed at both artists, and some of the responses included elaborations on the other man’s reply. I have tried to tie the response to the artist and deeply apologize if I have misattributed any words. Things were complicated by the fact that they were on tour when I was attempting to first contact them, asking about basic biographical and background details, and about how the recording came to be made.

VV: I got acquainted with piano at a very early age through my older sister’s musical efforts. I started playing piano at the Music School in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at age six with Professor Planinka Jurišić-Atić. At 16, I continued at the University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia, in the class of Professor Arbo Valdma, and at 19, moved to New York City, where I obtained my B.M. and M.M. at Mannes College of Music in the studio of Professor Pavlina Dokovska. Later, I earned my D.M.A. at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, under Professor Susan Starr, and, as a Fulbright Scholar, a professional studies certificate at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique de Genève in Switzerland under Professor Pascal Devoyon. In addition to performing in the U.S.A., Europe, and Asia, and at many music festivals, I am teaching piano at Mannes preparatory and extension divisions, and piano pedagogy and piano (as Pavlina Dokovska’s assistant) in the college division. I am also piano faculty and chamber music coordinator at the Beijing International Music Festival and Academy in China.

MH: My older brother was a violist and influenced my decision to become a musician. I started violin at age six in my home town of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, with Tenyo Tenev at the preparatory division of the music school in the city. Upon graduation, I continued my education at the Bulgarian State Academy of Music in Sofia under the direction of professors Elisaveta Kazakova and Petar Hristoskov. In 1995, I took first prize at the “Dobrin Petkov” National Violin Competition in Bulgaria, and was later invited to perform as a soloist with the Plovdiv Philharmonic. The following year, I was appointed professor of violin in the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico, where I served as principal second violin of the Orquesta de Cámara de Monterrey and the Orquesta Sinfonica de la Universidad de Nuevo León. I moved to the U.S. in 1997 to pursue a second master’s degree in violin under the direction of Yakov Voldman. The following year, I was a prizewinner at the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist Competition. I have been a member of several professional orchestras, and served as associate concertmaster and acting concertmaster of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra before dedicating myself full-time to a solo career and as a violin professor for the University of Tennessee School of Music. Teaching has always been an important part of my career, particularly imparting artistic values and respect and recognition for varying musical styles.

We started playing together in 2008, and after several successful recitals discovered our affinity for the music from the Balkans, which gave birth to the Music From the Balkans CD project. The Music From the Balkans program has been performed on numerous occasions throughout the U.S., Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, and Puerto Rico, to a great critical and audience acclaim. Of course, considering we live in different cities (me in Knoxville and Vladimir in New York City), our collaboration would not have been possible without the financial support of the University of Tennessee School of Music. The director at the time, Professor Roger Stephens, was very encouraging and helped us acquire funding. Professor Stephens passed away in February 2011, and we regret he was unable to see and hear the final product. He was a great man, a first-class musician, an able administrator, and a leading force in our efforts. Also, we appreciate Pavlina Dokovska’s (concert pianist and chair of the piano department at the Mannes College of Music) invaluable advice and artistic guidance in regards to this project. Finally, we would like to acknowledge Nathalie Hristov, music librarian, who invested enormous amounts of time, research, and energy into Music From the Balkans, having authored the program notes.

Q: There are many different views as to what constitutes a “Balkan” nation but under any definition it’s a vast region that includes many countries. What was the process for deciding what composers and pieces to include?

MH: Due to time limitations of one CD, we were able to chose the music from five Balkan countries, which, in our opinion, created a well-balanced artistic message, featuring a variety of compositional techniques and inspirations, from folk to 12-tone. At the same time, we continue to explore Balkan repertoire for future performances and recordings. In addition, the CD features a debut recording of Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Eastern Chapel Meditations , for violin, piano, and pre-recorded sounds. It was a unique experience to work with Aleksandra on this piece. Her imaginative treatment of instrument timbres and performance techniques broadened our musical palette. Another special treat and honor was the invitation from Çesk Zadeja’s son, Alban Zadeja, to participate at a festival, dedicated to his late father’s 85th birthday anniversary in Albania.

Q: Other than Enescu’s sonata and the “Song” by Pantcho Vladigerov, both of which I know from other recordings, everything else on the disc was new to me as a record collector. As you put together the program, did you need to seek out and then learn representative music from Balkan nations, or was this music already known to you and it was a matter of recording what was already in your repertoire? Is there an accepted list of master Balkan composers for each country and region, or did you have to do some digging?

VV: Some of the pieces were familiar, like Enescu or Vladigerov. We researched a significant amount of repertoire and chose to program selected pieces. I was familiar with Vrebalov and her work, including Eastern Chapel Meditations . It is difficult to talk about world-renowned master composers from the Balkans. Even Enescu’s music is not as famous or as often performed as it should be. At the same time, in each one of these countries there are composers who are very well known and frequently performed, and who contributed immensely to the development of classical music locally.

MH: The Union of Bulgarian Composers has a website with biographical entries for most of the known classical composers from Bulgaria. I’m not sure if there are equivalent resources from the other countries. Having studied in Bulgaria, I was very familiar with the music from my country as it was a strong part of the curriculum, and Bulgarian compositions were emphasized equally with Western classical music. Certainly there are relatively well-known composers from the other countries such as Romania and Greece. Our idea is to start with some of the more prominent composers, but also to choose works that were artistically meaningful to us and representative of the Balkans. I did consult with experts from other countries, which is how we discovered Zadeja and his music. When choosing Skalkottas to represent Greece, both Vladimir and I listened to many recordings, exploring several Greek possibilities. Of course, we had other logistical considerations like duration, and balance and contrast with the other works. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do Enescu, Vladigerov, and Vrebalov. Zadeja and Skalkottas were added based on our research.

Q: I assume references to Balkan musical characteristics or styles are to folk music, and about all I know of the attributes of the folk music of the region is in the music and written analysis Béla Bartók provided for his Mikrokosmos . I am sure there are many other and perhaps better sources. As classically trained artists, do you regard familiarity with the folk music of the Balkans as important to playing the pieces on your CD?

VV: I think I am quite familiar with the original or pure folk music from the Balkans. It was part of my music education in former Yugoslavia. Several of the works from the CD feature folk elements, hidden or obvious, and it is a pleasure to recognize them and bring them forth in performance.

MH: I, too, had to study Bulgarian folk music. Certainly, this modifies our approach to interpretation. For example, the tonal palette used to elicit more earthy sonorities certainly contrasts with the palette we would use when performing Mozart, a more pure and clean style. So I guess I would have to say, yes, in regards to your question about the importance of familiarity with Balkan folk music.

Q: The Balkans have gone through huge political and cultural changes since Bartók’s time. As an example, Bartók writes that No. 40 in Mikrokosmos is in “Yugoslav mode,” meaning, according to Bartók, in Mixolydian mode ending on a dominant rather than tonic. There is now no Yugoslavia and no area regarded as “Yugoslav.” Do the ethnic and cultural tensions of the region—prior identities traced to today’s political entities—carry over to musical sources and styles? For the audiences, do old tensions extend to the music?

VV: Folk music in the Balkans embraced centuries in its history and carried on through numerous kingdoms, dynasties, empires, wars, and turmoils. Political systems changed but music remained and grew richer. Even though Bartók might have referred to a “Yugoslav mode,” such an idea is related to a particular region, where music thrived before, during, and after Yugoslavia. Music, like many other art forms, represents human expression and, as such, portrays joys, sorrows, happiness, sadness, and all the many emotions in the inexhaustible palette. It is inevitable that music, and especially some of the program music, was influenced by the intensity of the Balkan’s history. Many musical elements crossed paths and overlapped among Balkan nations as a result of frequent political changes and intrinsic similarities among its peoples. I believe that Balkan audiences today can find pleasure in the richness and expressiveness of their music, shaped by centuries of similarities and differences.

Miroslav and I performed the Balkan program in Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, Sofia (Bulgaria), Nis and Novi Sad (Serbia), and Tirana (Albania). Everywhere, the pieces were received with warmth, enthusiasm, and friendly curiosity. In New York City, we performed portions of this program at Weill Hall of Carnegie Hall in the event titled Balkans—The Crossroads of Civilizations . The Balkan sounds reached out to the enthralled diplomats who were in attendance, representing many of the Balkan countries, and a delighted general audience. Music, in the end, transcends all differences.

Q: I always assumed a country such as Albania had a rich folk music tradition, but I know nothing about it. I was a bit surprised by how recent its “classical” music tradition really is and the sonata by Çesk Zadeja is seemingly the first Albanian classical music I have ever heard. He was not the first classical composer, although he is called the “father” of Albanian music. Other sources describe him as the first “substantial” Albanian composer. His violin sonata (in two movements) is brief enough never to outstay its welcome and for me it is a refreshing discovery. Can it be called representative of an Albanian “style”?

VV: Like you, I am eagerly discovering Albanian classical music. Zadeja’s violin sonata certainly is one of the most important and most frequently performed (in Albania, as we learned during our visit) pieces of this genre. Perhaps, such popularity makes it representative of the Albanian style even though it is different from other pieces by the same composer.

MH: One thing to note is that Zadeja was also an esteemed pedagog who trained many of the next generation of Albanian classical composers. From that perspective, it would seem that his works may be among the most representative

Q: Are there recording projects in the works, such as a sequel with more Balkan music? I saw a reference to recording Italian music of 20th century. Do you care to talk about future plans?

VV: The Hristov-Valjarević duo (we are also known as the Kaleidos Duo—a name inspired by a kaleidoscopic mix of colors and impressions) continues to research standard and unusual repertoire, and we are enjoying pedagogical activities in master classes worldwide. Currently, we are making arrangements for a recording of Italian compositions from the early 20th century. The Italian project will be recorded in May 2013 and will include works by Respighi, Malipiero, Pizzetti, Rota, Dallapiccola, and Ghedini. It represents an exciting exploration of post-Verdian Italy and its instrumental chamber music. All works were written in the 20th century; however, they show enormous richness and variety of expression and style.

Some of our future performances will take us to Knoxville, New York, and Louisiana—with the SLU University Chamber Orchestra, performing the Haydn Concerto for Violin and Piano and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (with cellist Dennis Parker and conductor Yakov Voldman). Meanwhile, we continue to explore other works from the Balkans not included in this first CD. We continue our research and are looking forward to a sequel to the Music from the Balkans . This is of great interest to us.

MH: We have recently performed movements from a sonata by the Turkish composer Fazil Say, as well as a Macedonian Love Song by the Slovenian composer [Alojz] Srebotniak, and Thracian Dances by the Bulgarian composer Petko Staynov, among others. Certainly, we would like to continue performing and recording more Balkan music, since there is a need in the recording industry to promote this music.

I think for now, Vladimir and I just want to try some other interesting genres that are also not very well known. What neither of us want is to be known as an exclusively “Balkan Duo,” since our musical interests are far broader, and up until recently, we had been performing a lot more traditional classical music (Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, etc.) for violin and piano. Our decision to be the Kaleidos Duo was in part to reflect our wide-ranging interest and tonal palette. Hopefully, our next recording project will represent a different side of our duo.

MUSIC FROM THE BALKANS FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO Miroslav Hristov (vn); Vladimir Valjarević (pn) CENTAUR 3208 (65:28)

ENESCU Violin Sonata No. 3. ZADEJA Violin Sonata. VREBALOV Eastern Chapel Meditations. SKALKOTTAS Petite Suite No. 2. VLADIGEROV Bulgarian Suite: Song


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