An interview with Acad. Vasil Kazandjiev about Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra’s collaboration with Bodra Smiana
Iva Georgieva: Prof. Kazandjiev, when did the collaboration between the Orchestra and Bodra Smiana begin?
Acad. V. Kazandjiev: In 1962, I began to conduct Sofia Chamber Orchestra, later renamed Sofia Soloists. Five or six years later we began to collaborate with Bodra Smiana, which lasted a decade or so.
Q: What repertory pieces did you perform?
A: Pergoles’s Stabat Mater was the first, soloists: Liliana Bareava, Resa Koleva. We have performed it on more than one occasion with other soloists. I rearranged Handel‘s two-part songs and Monteverdi’s Magnificat for strings. I am happy to say that these versions are performed until now.
We also performed together Bartók’s ritual songs and Britten’s Missa Brevis. The latter also needed a transcription of the organ part. At the time I created a lot of arrangements for strings, as there were not enough scores for such ensembles in Bulgaria. Bodra Smiana not only coped with the task but also became a showpiece of performing such music.
Q: Britten was impressed to listen to a recording of his Missa Brevis performed by Sofia Soloists with Bodra Smiana. His publishers sent a letter of invitation to Boncho Bochev to perform other works for children’s voices and instruments, Children’s Crusade, for example. Did you work with Britten?
A: Britten has apparently liked the performance, but Boncho Bochev never even mentioned it. You are the first to tell me. Boncho didn’t live to see all his ideas come to fruition.
Q: The repertory you offered to Bodra Smiana was a novelty in the 1960s–1970s Bulgaria. What reception did that unknown until then music receive?
A: Public understanding of and tastes for music were highly sophisticated at the time. A lot of educational concerts were held. I have given many such concerts, travelling across the country with the orchestra, visiting plants, schools, military units. We would play several pieces in different styles, explaining their specifics and providing information about the composers.
Children were quick studies and shaped their own criteria for music. As a conductor at Sofia Opera House (1957–1964), I have conducted The Magic Flute dozens of times to a house full of children aged between 7 and 15, whom I heard singing some of the opera tunes in two octaves higher. At the time, children grew up with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, etc, Such an environment makes good musicians.
Musical life was on the rise as three eminent figures were in charge of it: Lubomir Pipkov, Prof. Georgi Dimitrov and Philip Koutev. Being great musicians, they were also great patriots making an incredible contribution to Bulgaria.
Q: What was Boncho Bochev like?
A: Though I worked mostly with Liliana Bocheva, I knew Boncho Bochev very well. I attended his rehearsals and concerts. He was a typical representative of Bulgaria’s teachers of the 1930s and the 1940s. Then the teachers were perfectly educated and the discipline was very high, as in Bodra Smiana.
Boncho Bochev was relentless in his demands, working out each detail with infinite patience, even at he cost of many repetitions. And that’s the reason why Bodra Smiana was a brilliant choir.
Q: What about Liliana Bocheva?
A: Liliana Bocheva was his flesh and blood and continued in the same vein. She was a dream of a coach. It was owing to her that we made our concert programmes very quickly. We decided, for instance, to perform a certain work in 2 or 3 month and when I came for the first rehearsal, she has got everything down to a fine art without an orchestra, just on the piano––intonation, text, rhythms, dynamics––that was how the Bochevs worked!
A good assistant was solfeggio teacher Ivelin Dimitrov, a brilliant pedagogue, who coped with the most difficult task in work with children: teaching them sheet music.
Q: What was the process of rehearsing with the orchestra like?
A: Working with Bodra Smiana gave us a genuine and rare pleasure. Children were prompt to respond any conductor’s gesture, any explanation at the rehearsals and faultlessly coped with each task. Replays were negligible: to establish contact and make a good ensemble with the strings as it was for the first time that children sang with an orchestra. There’s always more that can be done, of course, for the balance, for example, or the intricacies of changing the tempo. The kids, however, were extremely well trained and no remarks were needed at all about the intonation of the sound emitting. Purely technical problems were kept to a minimum.
I had never worked with kids until then. I wonder whether I was right or not to treat them as audits. It was the very music that required fine nuances in the dynamics and that was the reason why I wanted them to be more expressive and contrasting in this respect. Thus the rehearsal process of the choir and the orchestra was uncompromising: hard work toward the highest level of accomplishment.
I believe ever since my student years that attention to details is key to success both in composing and instrumental performance. It was my Prof. Pancho Vladigerov, who taught me this. He, pencil and rubber in hand, checked note by note our homework tasks for the composition courses, completely reworking them as those were far from accomplished. He taught us the tricks of the trade: working precisely to the utmost, striving to achieve what the greats have done and what has gone down on record for posterity.
Q: The repertory of Bodra Smiana features you as the composer of the song At Daybreak, lyrics by Kiril Hristov. Did the choir perform other pieces by you?
A: Oh, that song I composed in my student years, in the early years of my studies with Pancho Vladigerov, but no other songs of mine have been performed. I have choral pieces, but rather for a choir and an orchestra.
Q: Rave reviews have been published of the tours made by Sofia Chamber Orchestra and Bodra Smiana of foreign countries. Which were the most memorable concerts abroad?
A: The most memorable were the concerts in Belgium. It was amazing how tireless the small kids were as each tour is a strenuous activity: travelling 300 to 500 km on a daily basis and giving concerts at night. This lasted 20 days and sometimes, a month. The kids though never showed exhaustion, singing their hearts out. Importantly, the performers have to be inspired, doing their best. Music is a living organism that has to be saturated with emotions.
Q: What about the tours of the country?
A: We performed in Sofia everything in the first place, before going on a tour abroad. We gave a lot of concerts in Bulgaria Hall. We never toured the country with Bodra Smiana, but once or twice we went on a holiday with the choir and there were no disciplinary problems. Such were the times then, children even received general conduct marks at school.
Q: Choral singing was widespread at the time. What did Bodra Smiana excel at compared to other children’s choirs?
A: At the quality of sound! The dynamics of many children’s choirs would boil down, by and large, to forte-piano; they intone and sing in tune, but without richness, while Bodra Smiana’s performance offers delicate phrasings, attaining a really thick sound, freeing or easing the richness of sound.
Q: What would you like to wish the present members of Bodra Smiana?
A: The work with Bodra Smiana is unforgettable to me. I think that we made a good job and it was a happy experience to meet and make music together, giving us great pleasure (and hard work, of course).