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When Music Means Friendship

For me it is always a privilege and a pleasure to conduct orchestras throughout Eastern Europe, promoting cultural exchange. American Music Festivals enjoys working with musicians and organizations in the United States and abroad to present concerts that lead to greater understanding and build lasting relationships. Our mission has taken us to world music centers like St. Petersburg, Prague, and Sarajevo . In this essay I want to tell you about my experiences in Bulgaria, and particularly with the Bulgarian people, with whom we share a special, and ongoing, cultural collaboration and friendship.

American Music Festivals is based in Chicago. After the fall of the Soviet Union we welcomed many new comers who possessed strong musical backgrounds. At a rehearsal I met Ivelin Miankov, who had been a violist with the Razgrad Philharmonic. Although he spoke little English we quickly formed a friendship. Through his introduction to Georgi Chimshirov, Artistic Director of the Razgrad Philharmonic, I was invited to Bulgaria to conduct the orchestra. We promoted the concert as part of “American Music Festivals visits Eastern Europe, 2001” which also included concerts of American music in Moscow and Prague.

My first days in Bulgaria began with a brief stay in Sofia and just enough time to walk a bit around the city, see the Church of St. George, and have a pleasant dinner on Mt. Vitosha. Travelling through the countryside we saw great valleys, Roman ruins, old Thracian tombs, the beautiful resort city of Varna (on the Black Sea), and crossed the Danube on our way to catch our return flight to Chicago (via Bucharest). Bulgaria has the potential to become a great tourist destination, with its rich history, culture, and incredible scenic diversity.

The concert by the Razgrad Philharmonic was a great success, with a full hall, TV cameras, and local newspapers proclaiming the event a “ Holiday for the people of Razgrad.” Musicians from across Bulgaria joined the orchestra to perform Pancho Vladigerov’s Vardar and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which featured a young pianist, Christo Rachev. He was a past winner of the Dmitri Nenov International Piano Competition and I learned that Nenov, who was from Razgrad, was one of Bulgaria ’s most important composers and pianists. It was incredible to hear the music of this genius, who is practically unknown in the USA.

Back in Chicago I kept in contact with the Miankovs, often reminiscing about my appearance in Razgrad, and how a return to Bulgaria might be possible. The tradition of the Dmitri Nenov International Piano Competition was in danger due to shifting social priorities. In 2008, after a couple of failed attempts, I expressed my intention to provide a prize for the winner to perform with our orchestra in Chicago, and the competition was at last announced. I was invited to join the Jury and began preparations to again leave for Bulgaria!

This time I arrived directly in Varna, Bulgaria ’s third city and a thriving cultural center. I was met at the airport by Christo Rachev, with whom I had worked seven years before. In addition to his career as a performing artist, he had become a successful concert promoter, and was planning to create a new multi-disciplinary festival in Varna. Our conversation, and his vision and “new” thinking, led the next summer to the first Varna International Arts Forum.

Philip Simmons and Victoria Vassilenko       Philip Simmons and Ken Moskowitz

Back in Razgrad, I had an even more pleasant surprise. The young pianists at the Nenov competition were all excellent. There is quite a school of piano pedagogy here in the Balkans! The winner of the competition was Victoria Vassilenko, at the time only 15 years old, but already a virtuoso. She performed Mozart and Nenov with incredible feeling and refined taste. She clearly had a wonderful future ahead of her, and to fulfill the promise of cultural exchange, I was to give her the opportunity to perform in America.

Upon returning to Chicago, with the help of the Miankov’s I began the process of reaching out to the Bulgarian community. We realized that we would need to design a high profile event that would create great pride and demonstrate to all of Chicago the best of Bulgarian culture. Two people were to be instrumental in achieving this goal: Ivan Sotirov, the former Consul General of the Republic of Bulgaria in Chicago, and Kina Bagovska, the founder of the Bulgarian American Heritage Center (of which I became an Advisory Board Member). But it would take time to develop our plans and these relationships.

My third trip to Bulgaria was in August of 2009 at the invitation of Mr. Rachev. We had a great concert together with the Varna Chamber Orchestra that closed the first Varna International Arts Forum. In attendance was Ken Moskowitz, Counselor for Public Affairs, from the US Embassy in Sofia. Plans are underway for another collaborative orchestral event in Varna in 2011, which may also be linked with a program in Sofia. Our work in Bulgaria has just begun.

However the task at hand remained to bring Ms. Vassilenko to Chicago. Mr. Sotirov had left the United States, and there were two other new obstacles-the world economic downturn had hit, and I had just moved from Chicago to Hawaii ! To keep our orchestra going in Chicago required the support of many people and for the “Celebration of Bulgarian Culture in Chicago ” to be a success, the Bulgarian community in Chicago would really need to become engaged.

The idea of nonprofit giving, and community service, is somewhat new to our many Eastern European friends who have recently arrived in America. Yet the project was too important to delay, and we announced the collaboration between the Bulgarian American Heritage Center and American Music Festivals, and that the program would be given at Northeastern Illinois University, to commemorate the Holiday of the Founding of the Slavonic Language, on May 23, 2010.


The concert opened with the Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra performing my own arrangement of Dimitri Nenov’s Miniatures, and then the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with Ms. Vassilenko as soloist. After intermission, the Bulgarian Dance Ensemble “HORO” took the stage, led by Irina and Todor Gochev, Artistic Directors and Chorographers, along with the Folk Orchestra “Kolorit” and soloist Temenushka Zhekova. The event also included a pictorial expression of the Slavonic Alphabet, by Bulgarian children in Chicago.

It was an amazing success, primarily because of the hard work of the Bulgarian American Heritage Center, Bulgarian Consulate, and many people from the Bulgarian community who were in attendance. I am so proud, and grateful, for all their efforts. The concert was introduced by Lincolnwood Mayor Jerry Turry, and the concert program booklet included a letter of acknowledgement from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who sent his best wishes for the event.

In the future I hope to be able to perform many more concerts with Victoria and Christo, strengthen my ties to the Bulgarian community in Chicago, and work with the orchestras in Sofia, Varna , Razgrad, and throughout Bulgaria . Let’s all invite and pursue continued collaboration between Chicago and Sofia, and the United States and Bulgaria. We are all the better for this sharing of cultures.

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