AMID HIS MAGNIFICENT MUSIC, A TERRIBLE ISOLATION
by Lionel Rolfe
American Reporter Correspondent
SOFIA, BULGARIA -- Angel Stankov, Bulgariaıs preeminent violinist and conductor, knows that his country has a terrible reputation. It's partly a reputation earned by benign neglect. People just donıt know much about this nation of under 7.6 million people.
It's gotten its reputation unfairly, he insists. At the same time, he bemoans how little people really do know about Bulgaria.
And in a darker, more revelatory mood, he admits that Bulgaria has had powerful and antagonistic neighbors who in the past have said bad things about his country.
He admits that may come from the fact that historically Bulgarians were often more effective warriors than diplomats. In any event, after World War I, Macedonia - where most of the people to this day speak Bulgarian and are Bulgarian - split away and the country was hustled off the world stage.
Stankov is convinced that if people did know more about Bulgaria, they would have quite a different opinion of his land. It is not just a nation that produces only Olympic athletes, he says, or has the dubious distinction of having had one of the more repressive of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Today, the citizens prowling the shopping streets of central Sofia - the capital city with more than a million souls are, despite poverty and hardship, are stylish - if nothing else. Perhaps this sense of style comes from the country's traditional art form, the creation of religious icons that have made its churches a "must" stop on every art historian's Eastern European itinerary.
Stankov, who has been the soloist as well as concertmaster of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra when it toured Europe and the United States, ponders the changes.
Around the time of the Second Millennium, he was invited to conduct the complete cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies as the European Union commemorated the 230th anniversary of of the composer's birth and its own 50th anniversary. He is also known as an important interpreter of famed Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
Stankov is very much a European, but he's also a Bulgarian and operhaps the top professor of music in the country - and in comparing classical music today and yesterday, when the country was ruled by Communists, he notes a number of things.
Chief among them is the difficulty of keeping music academies and orchestras together these days, when neither music students or orchestra members can get printed scores. Luckily, the support for music is so intense among Bulgarian society, despite all the social changes and widespread poverty, that classical music will find a way to survive here.
The quality of his students more than equals those in other nations, he insists.
One of the most staunchly communist of countries after World War II, its leader from 1946 until his death in 1949 was Georgi Dimitriov.
Dimitriov was involved in a failed communist uprising in Bulgaria in 1923, and went into exile afterward. He was a bitter opponent of King Boris.
He became a Communist hero when Hitler put him on trial for setting the Reichstag fire. The Nazis had done it themselves, but they wanted to blame a communist for it.
Dimitriov, however, defended himself so brilliantly at a court in Leipzig in 1933, the jurors were compelled to acquit him. He won worldwide attention for his bravery - and also the attention of Stalin.
In 1935 he became general secretary of the Comintern and directed the armed communist struggle in Bulgaria for Stalin, with whom he became close.
He was elected prime minister of Bulgaria in 1946.
Georgi Dimitriov set into motion one of the most inflexible of communist regimes, yet at its end, Stankov says its musicians were among the most individualistic and perhaps eccentric of all - each putting a personal stamp on the music they played.
Music needs this, he says.
Like many others in classical music, Stankov notes that they just don't make great musicians like they used to.
In the old days, there were violinists like Menuhin and Paganini, Heifetz and Oistrakh. Today's young musicians are very good, he says, but they lack the poetry that comes from very personal playing.
Of course, he says, the world is becoming homogenized in many things. But the problem is there's no real point to music if it doesn't communicate through one's individual humanity and humanness, he says, no matter how slick the performances.
Bulgarian musicians used to regularly appear not only in nearby Germany and Turkey, with rare forays to the United States, but also throughout most of the former Soviet Union. Today there's not even a single music manager booking Bulgarian musicians abroad, he says.
Here Stankov, an obviously distinguished appearing man, with an apparent nobility of character about him, practically hurumphs.
The communists understood the value of culture, he says, and put their money where their mouth was. On the other hand, in todayıs new society, there's no one to prevent him from making foreign appearances, such as the Communist authorities did to him on the occasion of a debut performance in London when there were concerns about his politics.
In a way, the problem of the isolated Bulgarian musicians is akin to the isolation that today is devastating its economy in other ways.
Stankov says Bulgarians have been successful in making beautiful icons and incredible music, sometimes jazz and classical and even popular, but always based on the rich folk tradition.
The defining moment in Bulgarian history were those centuries spent under the "Turkish yoke" - a reference many Bulgarians still make to their days under the Ottoman empire.
Stankov said that Bulgarians did not get a chance to develop such domestic arts as cutlery, ceramics or furniture making. So that helped focus attention on the two things in which Bulgarians were successful.
At the heart of the icon making is the nation's fierce attachment to its national Christianity. Even those who are not terribly religious find comfort in the rich icons of the ancient Byzantine churches across the land.
So the religion is very tied up with the unique folk traditions, and it reflects the fact there it has Western and Eastern influences, with acceptable input from Moslem and Jewish sources.
At the base of Bulgaria's pop music scene (there is a large but underground punk and heavy metal scene) you will find folk music. The folk tradition is, often incongruously, woven in. Imagine a disco beat to an old folk song! It's especially jarring when the singer is quite accomplished - which happens only rarely with disco.
Stankov lifts his violin and plays some traditional folk tunes, often "very sad," because that is how life has been for Bulgarians throughout history.
Western music, such as Beethoven and Mozart, he explains, are much loved in Bulgaria - but has been a factor for only a century now. The nation's composers draw from the folk tradition, just as Hungary's Bela Bartok drew from his nation's folk tradition in his music.
The school where he is a professor and rector is named after one of these composers - the Sofia State Music Academy Pancho Vladigerov.
Bulgaria's Jews have a surprising, and again, little-known history. Other Balkan neighbors, such as Croatia and Romania, were brutal in their treatment of them. The Jews of Macedonia, a land whose people and language are essentially Bulgarian, did not fare well. Mostly they died - in Fascist death camps.In Rumania, local Fascists hung Jews on meat hooks, and Croatians were among the staunchest and most brutal allies of Hitler. Those sympathies still exist there today.
In Bulgaria, it isnıt that you donıt see both Nazi and Communist graffiti on the walls, but anti-Semitism never held sway. Indeed, in Sofia the main Jewish synagogue is not far from the Turkish mosque at the cityıs center, and is surrounded by hot springs whose mineral water is piped to the surface for people who take the stuff home.
Stankov makes a powerful argument that Bulgarians, from top Orthodox church officials to parliamentary dealers to the King himself, refused to turn over Bulgaria's Jews to Hitler. He says that King Boris, the father of the present King Simeon, was summoned to Hitlerıs court over his refusal to turn over Jews. He refused a second time and was flown home - too high and too fast for a man with a heart condition; he died shortly after his return.
Stankov said that it hasn't been proved, but it is widely believed Simeon's death was an intentional punishment of the monarch.
The fact that Bulgarian musicians are little heard on the world stage like they used to be does not directly affect Stankov.
He is well enough known people contact him to tour. He still tours widely in the former Soviet bloc countries, in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Europe, and occasionally in the United States. He has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Music is not the only area in which Bulgaria has been left in its own morass. Under communism, Bulgaria had a lot of factories and industries - steel, for example. But their market was the former Soviet bloc, and with the collapse of communism, the factories simply collapsed.
Nowadays, Bulgaria still produces a lot of agriculture - you need only eat the luscious peaches and rosy tomatoes beside their American cousins to know what those fruits should really taste like. But the Common Market wonıt allow the produce in and so Bulgaria is denied a market there. The European world is also unfriendly to Bulgarian singers.
Today, as Bulgaria tries to get admitted into the Common Market, one of the prices being demanded is the closing of an old Soviet-style nuclear power plant that provides one of the countryıs few exports, electricity.
Common Market nations complain about the plantıs safety, yet want to replace it with another in Romania of much the same kind. The Bulgarian government is officially gave its support to the war in Iraq, perhaps because like other former Soviet bloc countries it wants American largesse - yet almost no one in the country approves of the war.
Stankov says that the official reason the Common Market is reluctant to admit Bulgaria is that the Mafia is now completely integrated into Bulgaria's power elite.
"They drive around in BMWs with blacked-out windows. Technically, blacked -out windows are illegal, but the police are afraid to stop them," he says.
I tell him you can see the same thing in Los Angeles. And how about Italy, where the prime minister is widely believed to be in bed with the real Mafia?
He responds with a weary nod that seems to say, "For Bulgaria, it's always the same old story."
Lionel Rolfe is the author of "Literary L.A." and "Fat Man on the Left." A new paperback edition of his "Death And Redemption in London & L.A." is now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com).