Festival Practices and Spatial, Time and Historical Distances


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Festivals as a strategic tool are a much-discussed subject by many researchers varying from philosophers to anthropologists to sociologists to historians to tourism and political analysts to urban developers. Varna Summer International Music Festival, which traditionally and historically may well be bracketed with Europe’s earliest festivals such as that held in Bayreuth, opened in 1876, and that in Salzburg (1920), is closer to Bakhtin’s idea (Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press. Bloomington) of ‘consolidation’ and ‘universalism’, retaining though the triumph of the elites and the mechanisms of social control. According to Bakhtin’s concept of ‘the carnivalesque’, such events are socially induced and determined, ‘suspending social hierarchies’, ‘linking’ and uniting people. The practice shows though that festival policies impose restrictions, establishing social, spatial, time and artistic distances. In his book on urban festivals, Australian Professor of Human Geography Gordon Waitt (Waitt G. Urban Festivals: Geographies of Hype, Helplessness and Hope // Geography Compass. 2008. Vol. 2. No. 2. pp. 513-537) has described the above ‘as a contemporary urban regeneration tool of neoliberal governance through the conjunction of business, play and fantasy’. All authors, quoted by Gordon Waitt, share the view that art festivals demonstrate predominantly affluence, nationalistic, military or monarchic mindsets (Bob Jarvis), striving that the European social elites should draw distinct social lines using high art (Kate Bassett). Comparing the festivals held in East and West Europe in terms of concepts and purposes, the differences become apparent and the inferences drawn by our Western colleagues would prove typical only of certain geographical and economic structures. These differences stem from social stereotypes, economic standards and to a large extent, from the educational traditions shaped including under Socialism: East-European music festivals are not commercially oriented being intended for audiences belonging to a wider range of social groups; Western festivals, even though adhering to the same artistic standards, are meant for affluent elitist audiences. A fleeting comparison between the music festivals in Lucerne and George Enescu in Bucharest, for instance, featuring identical performers agree with what was earlier said and is far from being an isolated case either.

The presentation of the second enlarged edition of Rosemary Statelova’s book, The Summer of Bulgarian Culture, in the auditorium of the University of Economics, Varna brought festival forms up for discussion and particularly that of Varna Summer in its historical mobility and analyses of its historical role, structures and public response. The book is a record of the festival, featuring events and facts, made and enriched by the author’s remarkable experience in fieldwork, in covering mass and popular melodizing in her capacity of an anthropologist and sociologist of music and culture. She was embedded in the festival’s atmosphere for decades, being its living partner ever since the 1960s as a professionally engaged audience, an author of reviews of current events and a competent selector of factual material.

Rosemary Statelova’s book presents Varna Summer as a logotype, as a brand changing over the years, as a set of notions, suggesting values, standards and ideas. The book contains historical information, characteristics of the popular mentality; it features figures that have shaped the form of the Festival and have been identified with it in certain periods as well as various stages in professional music activities. The book is an invaluable record of the sociocultural changes in this country and in Varna respectively. In this sense, Milko Dimitrov’s metaphor that Varna Summer is a branch of life rather than of culture has been proved right. And the second edition of the book occasioned by the Festival’s 90th anniversary is rather well-timed, as it covers the biological frontier of a living and adaptive ‘spectacle form’ (after Bakhtin).





Photos by Rosen Donev

The festival identity of Varna Summer was in fact prompted by Bulgarian existentialists’ quest for national identity in the 1920s, by the transformation of amateurism into professionalism, by the establishment and the development of Bulgaria’s institutions and the striving for making art. The festival was launched to champion the national authorial music. It is worth mentioning that Benjamin Britten launched in 1948 Aldeburgh Festival in Surrey County, where he was born, intending initially to present new music. Later his festival evolved into a major summer event in the UK. Edinburgh International Festival was also put into a context, i.e. the post-war situation. Unlike such festival centres as Salzburg and Munich, Edinburgh remained intact in WW2. Since its first edition in 1947, the festival has set on the path towards high culture in defiance of the post-war culture.

International Summer Music Academy and Varna Summer Music Lab have been developed also as a form of distancing from the festival practices, ‘distancing’ in terms both of time and space: the former bridges a generation gap, imparting and bringing knowledge up to date, while the latter overcomes the spatial differences, synchronising to an extent the parallel processes in globalisation and the dispora. Varna Summer Music Lab presents the Bulgarian music dispora; most of them come from Varna. The Lab has its historical roots in the post-totalitarian period, in the offered free opportunity to migrate in a quest for a successful career. Careers differ from performer to performer of those included in the programme and the same holds true for their responsibility for their particular performance.

In the chamber music duo Vesselin Stanev (piano) and Ekaterina Frolova (violin), Stanev definitely evinces brighter individuality and artistry, fine expressivity, perfect pianism, attesting to his active international concert career. It has been Vesko Stambolov’s (piano) fourth participation at Varna Summer since 2003, following the recital of Bulgarian music as the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra’s soloist under Emil Tabakov and in a chamber concert with Tsvetana Bandalovska. The interpretation of Bachian music through reading the symbolism, tonal semantics, structure and texture is a marked trend in contemporary musicianship. Stambolov develops the traditions of Bachian interpreters of the past: unadorned and uncluttered, without pretence or falsehood, paying special attention to note subtext. The recital of Swiss-based Plamena Nikitassova, a violinist exuding an air of congeniality, claiming authenticity of the baroque richness of sound, performing true to her capacity, also dealt with Bachian music and the reflections of time.

Varna Summer Music Lab is important to Varna Summer Festival for its tradition to stage premieres of pieces by Bulgarian and foreign composers: particularly memorable were the two pieces by Nicolas Bacri, Krassimir Taskov’s Dream for Cello and Piano; Georgi Arnaudov’s song cycle Whispering Along (lyrics by Peyo Yavorov); Martin Georgiev’s London Songs; Kiril Lambov’s three pieces for four pianos and string orchestra among others. This year’s edition contributed to the above the Bulgarian premiere of The American Four Seasons, concerto for violin, synthesizer and string orchestra No. 2 by Philip Glass performed by Dimitar Burov (violin) Yana Burova (violin) and the Festival Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Plamen Djurov.

Milko Kolarov’s latest Paraphrase, concertante for piano and orchestra having its world premiere at the festival, sounded as a recapitulation, an intellectual anthology, and a journey across time. The piece was quite affective, bringing intimacy, melancholy, narrative, and memories into focus; perfect in terms of the course of time, of aesthetics, being a symbiosis of styles, techniques and contrasts. ‘Harmoniously’ and un-clichéd moments of tonal, atonal and aleatoric alternated, proving Jolivet’s ingenious definition of ‘tonal’ composition as ‘free of any routine’, which Kolarov would quote now and then. The music flew as an absolute revelation distanced from age or the need for pretension: ‘A tear-drop has much more truth to it’, the composer said. After the end of the concert occasioned by his yet another anniversary, he gave a key to the piece, quoting the words of Ivo Andrić that ‘a man, growing older, would hark back to his or her childhood hoping against hope that it all would begin at the beginning. /…/ It’s more important that art helps us see the stars without a telescope. /…/ It is the mentality of the Bulgarians what I care about, it is the emanation of this mentality what I care about’. Milko Kolarov has his reserved participation in the festival as a conductor and composer. He is a living binding link with the founding fathers of Varna Music Festivities through their creative devotedness, professional music championship, through the enlightening mission and the incessant effort to draw a distinction between high art and claptrap. The initially proclaimed identity of the festivities to present and support Bulgarian professional art constructing a national social domain has been upheld over the decades as a Festival’s cause.






Festival Practices and Spatial, Time and Historical Distances

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