Best of Both Worlds: Vasko Vassilev

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The Bulgarian-born Vasko Vassilev talks to Mansel Stimpson about being a Concertmaster with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden…

Vasko Vassilev, concert master of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Who knows what would have happened to Vasko Vassilev had his father played the piano and his mother the violin instead of the other way around? It’s fair to pose this question based on what Vasko, who was born in Sofia in 1970, tells me. When he was four-and-a-half years old his parents asked him not so much whether he wanted to play an instrument but which instrument, the violin or the piano, appealed to him the most. “So I chose the violin”, he says, “ because at that time I was worshipping my father a little bit more than my mother, as most boys do.” It was not too soon to ask, as young Vasko would confirm by becoming an infant prodigy before long. “What happened, basically, was that as a child I used to be a performing monkey for the Communist party officials in Bulgaria. I would be summoned by them to provide musical entertainment for all sorts of leaders who would come to visit, people like Ceauşescu from Romania.”

This then was Vasko’s world, but one that might have changed quickly because, being a musician, his father recognised that his son needed to study at the best of schools and consequently had it in mind to send him to Juilliard in New York. However, with the sudden death of the pro-western daughter of the Communist leader, Vasko’s father found that the situation had changed. “He was told that he could forget America and that the choice was either to go to Moscow or to stay in Bulgaria. Consequently we found ourselves in Moscow and I attended that elite school, the Conservatoire, from which so many amazing violinists have come. It was, indeed, a fantastic place and I chose as my teacher a woman who was always referred to as ‘The Iron Lady’ – that was because normally she would only start smiling after two or three years spent studying with her. But I couldn’t be more grateful for the chance that took me there because, although it was a hard life, it was a great experience.”

In fact Vasko was almost a prodigy twice over. “While still in the Sofia Music School – I must have been eight or nine – people came round looking for a boy to cast in a film and they picked me. It was great fun to do that film because, although this was the time of the Cold War with travelling very restricted, we filmed in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The film went on to win a prize and I was asked to do a second film based on the story of Paganini. However, by then I was in Moscow and my Russian teacher was quite emphatic that there should be no more films and, indeed, no more concerts: just study to which I should devote myself for five years. Actually it was lucky that she took that line because being a prodigy has its dangers, especially if you listen to the wrong people. But in my case it was very beneficial and, having had Vanessa-Mae as a student, I think that I can say that it is the same for her. Nevertheless, I’ve seen enough famous people to know that it’s very, very hard to live with fame.”

Vasko Vassilev in Covent Garden's 'Paul Hamlyn Hall'

Vasko benefited from his years of extensive study in Moscow but even so regards it as good luck that he was chucked out of the Conservatoire following disapproval over how he handled prize-winnings which had come his way from his success in the Jacques Thibaud Competition and over concerts he had performed in France in consequence. “It meant that I had the best of both worlds. I had gained from the fantastic teaching in Moscow where you could often concentrate on learning one piece over months of study and from the technical facilities they had given me. But when I left I came to London to study at the Royal College of Music and, being eighteen, I was still young enough to take hold of the good things available for musicians in the west. Indeed I believe London to be the best place in the world for music and it was here that I entered real life through working with the London orchestras. I soon came to realise that I would not be satisfied with the life of a soloist. Those who do that play ten sonatas by Beethoven, three by Brahms and few other pieces, and even if they have ten to fifteen concerti in their repertoire they are usually asked to play only three or four: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and possibly Sibelius. I was becoming aware of so much amazing music outside of that, and then, when I was acting as a guest leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano who was conducting invited me to audition for the opera in Lyon and I got the job. That was in 1991 when I was twenty-one, and I stayed for two years. Subsequently I was recommended to take an audition here and I leapt at the chance. It was with Solti and my first productions were Traviata and The Sleeping Beauty. Since then it’s been a love-affair with this opera house that shows no sign of abating thirteen years on.”

For Vasko being at Covent Garden has many advantages and one of them, paradoxically, is the opportunity it gives him to do other things. “When I first came here I was one of two leaders, but than I was left for a while on my own and found myself taking on extra responsibilities. That was during the period when the house was closed and because I became involved in more than just leading the orchestra I was given the title of Concertmaster. Today there are two of us, Peter Manning and myself, plus an associate in Sergey Levitin. The fact is that good Concertmasters are hard to find. That’s because you have to be as good as a soloist –sometimes in the ballets you get amazingly big solos – but in addition you need to be able to switch to playing that requires the quality of a good chamber musician. Also you have to be very good with your colleagues. Since every orchestra needs three leaders and the demands are so high, in order to get good people you have to give them a degree of freedom to do other things, whether that be to become professors or to play as soloists or whatever. An additional bonus for us at Covent Garden is that operas are planned three years ahead so we can decide on a schedule in advance, discussing who would like to do what, sometimes accommodating a conductor who wants one of us in particular but more importantly getting the right balance in the amount of work we each do with the music director.”

Vasko Vassilev

Knowing well ahead when you will be free is a great advantage to Vasko since he has such wide musical interests. It’s not just a case of doing solo work and chamber recitals but of embracing other spheres. Thus he is the principal conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Orchestra as well as conducting the Super-Girls Orchestra (“I think that these days a musician has to able to do everything”) and, like, say, Bryn Terfel, he believes in reaching out to listeners who might not readily engage with classical music. “Music and sport often work together – even Pavarotti who had mass appeal would not have attained the level of fame that came to him without the World Cup. I have worked with the world figure-skating champions of Bulgaria, Albena Denkova and Maxim Stavyiski, and it’s amazing how much they know about music. Their choreography came from the Bolshoi Theatre and if they’re able to draw on classical music and ballet why shouldn’t we draw on other forms of culture? I’m playing in The Ring but perform for ice-skating as well – but the important thing when you venture into other fields is that you’ve got to be bloody good instrumentally in what you do.”

This desire to appeal widely derives in part from Vasko’s fears that there are too few new classical works in tune with what the masses like. He harkens back to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with possible successors such as Thomas Adès and the Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story (“if you call that an opera”) but cannot refrain from this lament: “If we had the equivalent of new Puccini operas – good music of mass appeal – than everything would be fine.” Does this mean that he shares the concerns of those who believe that classical music is dying and lacks the support of the younger generation? “Definitely there are fewer concert-goers now, but if you go to pop concerts featuring Police or The Rolling Stones it’s not teenagers who represent the average age of the audience there either. But if it’s becoming less easy to interest people in going out, the fact is that through modern technology and downloads more people are listening to Tchaikovsky than ever before. In fact I don’t think that teenagers have ever been much drawn to opera – it seems to appeal to older audiences. But that’s not so with ballet – the audiences there are noticeably younger and for Bayadère the hall is full every night.”

At the time of our meeting Vasko has just completed the first of the three performances of the complete Ring Cycle (he plays in all of them) and is also the Concertmaster leading the orchestra in the staging of the ballet he has just mentioned, La Bayadère. He talks to me about what it means to do this as opposed to being the leader in a symphony concert. “I always remember that some years ago when doing The Enchantress with Valery Gergiev he stressed the problems that exist for an opera orchestra. As he said, you have to switch gears all the time: one moment you are providing a simple accompaniment for a singer which gives you almost nothing to get into and then suddenly the demands can be akin to those made on a symphony orchestra, after which you are again following the singer. Consequently you have to be incredibly flexible. Then, with ballet, every night will be completely different because when you have different dancers the tempi will always be changing. That may mean that the tempo doesn’t seem right to you and you may feel uncomfortable, but you’re there to serve the dancers. The movements they make, and which you don’t see in the pit, may be more physical than musical in their beauty, but in supporting them you still have to play in a way that’s effective musically: that’s the trick.”

And what of the stamina needed for a long opera and especially for something like the complete Ring Cycle? “There’s nothing like The Ring: when you play the full cycle you enter a completely different state of mind. You certainly have to pace yourself because of the length, but I love being immersed in it, and when you do the complete thing it definitely feels like a single work. There are all those references going right the way through, so it comes to make much more sense: there is so much looking back in Götterdämmerung that you could say that there are no new tunes in it! I’ve done it before under Haitink but those were concert performances at the Royal Albert Hall and it’s another thing doing it staged. With so much music I feel that this time I’ve learnt it much better. That’s partly due to more rehearsal time, partly because the second time is always easier, but it’s such a rich work that you find new things in it all the time. It’s a challenge of course, but it’s a fantastic feeling to play the whole thing and that’s how we approach it: as the biggest challenge in all opera.”

Before we end our talk, Vasko refers once more to his teacher in Moscow. I am aware that he speaks Russian and Spanish as well as English and Bulgarian and is currently studying Mandarin. Furthermore he has stressed that one of the privileges of being a musician is to travel, so I wonder if he feels that everything feeds-in to what he does as an artist. “I recall the very last thing that my teacher said to me in Moscow. She was thinking of my playing when she said ‘You’ve become a very good violinist who can do anything technically but the best thing is to become a good person’. So, yes, technique gets you so far but then it’s all down to life experience.”

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