ppIANISSIMO International Festival of Contemporary Piano Music 2017 celebrated two anniversaries: the festival’s 20th anniversary and the 70th birth day of its founder and artistic director of long standing, Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova.
Ever since its first edition in March 1998, the festival has established itself as a creative lab of contemporary art and has for two decades now unflaggingly pursued its concept to promote piano repertoires since the early twentieth century, providing a platform for both internationally recognized interpreters and debuts of pianist prodigies.
ppIANISSIMO 2017 was promoted by the organisers as a ‘retrospective’ offering opportunities for taking delight once again in the performance of favourites, many of whom have participated in the event on more than one occasion (this time, of course, with new programmes). The festival upheld its own traditions: genre diversity with uncompromising selection of performers and pieces; flawless pianism exposed in various national and generational dimensions to it; focusing on Bulgarian and world premieres; solo recitals; accessibility to wider audiences (a new online dimension to ‘free admission’ to the event: broadcasting live all the concerts on Binar.bg).
The venue was also the traditional one: the First Studio of the Bulgarian National Radio but in a different format this time. Unlike the previous editions, held ‘in the same breath’ and offering two and on the weekends even three concerts per day, this edition had evening performances only, but ran much longer: from 24 March to 9 April. I was a bit suspicious of this more relaxed spacing out within three festival weeks, in series of three concerts on the weekends. I’d rather tend to a more dynamic, concentrated course of just several successive days, but as the festival gained momentum, I happened to understand that it was a reasonable decision as by featuring ppIANISSIMO for a longer time on the bill of concerts given in Sofia, the audiences were given a chance to think over their experience, to grasp what they have seen and heard, to take in the lavishly offered diversity, rather than leading to ‘blurring’ or dispersal.
ppIANISSIMO has always created an impression of a very well devised and accomplished project, pursuing various thematic lines united by the idea of showing the piano’s infinite capacity not as a keyboard instrument alone, but also as a percussion instrument. This year’s edition too boasted a well-proportioned dramaturgic concept. Each of the three festival weeks featured a solo recital by brilliant pianists from different countries, each of them very special and thrilling: Gabor Csalog (Hungary), Magdalena Lisak (Poland), Ralph van Raat (The Hetherlands). A number of Bulgarian performers living outside Bulgaria such as Maria Martinova (Belgium), Kamelia Miladinova (The Netherlands), Stefka Perifanova (Switzerland) made their admirers happy again with their bright artistic presence. The new in a row recital of Absolut Trio (Switzerland) became a memorable event for all their admirers attending ppIANISSIMO. Dedicated to ppIANISSIMO, a traditional concert ‘generating’ new works and this time featuring pieces by Dobrinka Tabakova, Penka Kuneva, Konstantin Ilievsky, Albena Petrovic Vratchanska, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, etc., understandably piqued interest. The recital given by Anna Christensson (piano, Sweden) and Annastina Malm (mezzo-soprano, Sweden/France), and the jams in ppIANISSIMO JAZZ Now, leading to the anticipated culmination, the closing concert 70 Years from the Beginning… celebrating Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova’s anniversary were naturally interwoven into the general festival pattern.
Anna Christensson and Annastina Malm, who participated in ppIANISSIMO 2016 Nordic Edition, were impressive with their fine and delicate melodising. At this year’s edition, they presented a Swedish programme including pieces by composers of the early twentieth century: Sigurd von Koch, Moses Pergament and Gösta Nyström as well as by contemporary Andrea Tarrodi, Katarina Leyman and Rei Munakata, where a Bulgarian work was embedded, the world premiere of Triptych of Autumn by Borislava Taneva producing a profound effect.
Belgian-based Maria Martinova and one of the most popular contemporary Dutch pianists, Ralph van Raat opted for radically contrasting types of structuring of their concert programmes and their performances in Sofia offered drastically different experience.
On the Tonality Resists themed night, the duo Martinova – French violinist Cyril Garac offered a stretto in quicker time of the entire programme. Without intervals (and applause between the pieces on their explicit request) the virtuosi performed eight, varying in genre and nationality, works for piano and for violin and piano (by Arvo Pärt, Gustavo Beytelmann, Pёteris Vasks, Lyubomir Denev, Miroslav Danev and Maria Martinova), compressing their entire duration into 60 minutes (excluding the thrillingly performed encore of Tango by Piazzolla). This not that usual concept created an atmosphere of special concentration and absorption, leading to a total immersion in the harmony of the works, arousing in the audience a feeling of travelling by train, of calm contemplation of everything passing by.
Brilliant pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat teaches contemporary piano music interpretation at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He presented each of the pieces with visible pleasure, erudition and charm (a manner fancied by him judging by the video-sharing websites). His recital became a lecture, a panorama of a kind of contemporary Dutch piano music with its Bulgarian premieres of pieces both by popular (Theo Loevendie, Louis Andriessen) and relatively unknown in this country Dutch authors (Gerard Beljon, Joep Franssens, Andries van Rossem, etc.). At absolute creative oneness with Kamelia Miladinova, they immersed the audience in the Bulgarian premiere of Second Nature for Piano Four Hands by Vanessa Lann, an American composer living in the Netherlands. This seemingly attractive piece that has such profound effect actually has the deep meaning ‘to explore the psychological and spiritual nature of one pianist in relation to the other – to find the middle ground between a piece for two pianists and a work for soloist…’ .
Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova’s piano school is a wide-ranging topic deserving special attention and impossible to be broached here, but should not be left unobserved either: we witnessed the best of her, especially in the closing concert. The celebration of the piano teacher’s 70th anniversary, who had trained a number of pianists became, as one might expect, a social event, but the concert itself ought to be mentioned for several reasons. On the one hand, that closing night brought together a galaxy of her students, many of whom making successful careers for themselves across Europe (Kamelia Miladinova, Ivan Pavlov, Alexandra Radulova, Nadejda Tzanova, Margarita Ilieva, Dariya Yovcheva, Rumen Traykov). On the other hand, with the Bulgarian premieres of five compositions for piano winners of the De Bach au jazz competition held by Lilia Boyadjieva in Paris (2015) by Roger Briggs, Ana Krstajić, Andrea Granitzio, Marco Molteni and Kenneth Lim, this concert given at ppIANISSIMO 2017 evolved into a festival within the festival, raising the curtain on a novel selection of piano pieces from across the world. Last, but by no means least, the finishing touch, the duo of Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova and Lilia Boyadjieva of a piece charged with a special meaning by a composer, who had a decisive influence on the pianist’s career development, Sonata for Two Pianos No. 1 by Lazar Nikolov became the semantic and emotional point of the entire festival.
Though pursuing its established line, ppIANISSIMO widens its scope both by offering masterclasses conducted by visiting pianists and giving concerts in other cities (this year’s edition included four concerts in Plovdiv).
Attracting intense public interest, widely promoted and receiving institutional support, the festival is anticipated, vigilantly watched and covered by various publications. Enjoying its own cultivated audiences of regular concertgoers, both professionals and lovers of music, now ppIANISSIMO is a far cry from an Eine-Frau-Festival, as Leslie Lutz called it in 2003. Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova has assigned the mounting of the festival to ‘the young’, while she is now just the Honorary President of the ppIANISSIMO Foundation.
We are waiting with anticipation for the ppIANISSIMO Turns 20 concert to be given on 20th October 2017 in „Bulgaria“ Hall with the participation of the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra featuring pieces by Georgi Minchev, Gheorghi Arnaoudov and Richard Dubugnon; soloists: Stella Dimitrova-Maystorova, Lilia Boyadjieva, Borislava Taneva and Vessela Pelovska.
 See for e.g.:. Данова, Диана. Фестивалът на клавирната музика на ХХ век ppIANISSIMO (1998–2006) – In: Българско музикознание, 2008, 1, pp. 90–116/ Danova, Diana. ppIANISSIMO International Festival of Contemporary Piano Music (1998–2006) – In: Bulgarian Musicology, 2008, 1, pp. 90–116, etc.
 Lann, Vanessa. Second Nature. – In: ppIANISSIMO 2017, Programme, p. 78.
 Bulgarian National Radio is a co-organiser of ppIANISSIMO on a regular basis. Traditionally, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria along with Sofia Municipality, embassies and cultural institutions based in the countries from where visiting performers come also lend support to the festival.
ppIANISSIMO 2017 Poster