Last week, by kind permission of the Headmaster, Galin Ganchev (M) and I travelled to Galin’s native Bulgaria where he had been asked to perform Brahms’ monumental Second Piano Concerto with the Varna Opera Orchestra as part of a Winter Music Festival in Varna’s Philharmonic Concert Hall. What made the trip doubly worthwhile was that, in addition to being able to conduct Galin in the concert, I was also going to be able to see a performance of the very first musical we created for Shrewsbury School in 1994, Jekyll, being performed by Varna Children’s Opera at the Varna Opera House.
Arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, accompanied by Galin’s parents, who had been over visiting Shrewsbury School to attend a gala concert organised by Galin’s tireless guardian, Gareth Jenkins, in which Galin, amongst others was performing, we were greeted by the sight of Bulgaria’s first and very extensive snowfalls of the winter. What is normally a relaxed five-hour drive east to Varna, on the Black Sea coastline, turned into an epic eight-and-a-half-hour journey through driving snow, scudding past many snowploughs, gritting lorries and queues of struggling trucks, many of whom seemed forced to abandon their journey en route. Galin’s father, Gancho, himself a leading conductor and figure in Bulgaria’s rich musical life, seemed unphased by the journey, and we arrived tired but safe in the picturesque eastern seaport of Varna itself late at night.
Varna is probably the second city of Bulgaria in terms of importance and size, and in the summer months almost doubles in population, being such a popular tourist destination, with its fine beaches and excellent climate. It is also a city steeped in history. Once part of the Thracian and Greco Roman civilizations, it boasts a superb a superb archaeological museum with simply one of the best arrays of artefacts of any museum in existence. Bulgaria may have only emerged comparatively recently from its years as a communist state, but its pre-history and richness as a culture of immense importance makes it one of the most significant countries in Europe when understanding the growth and development of European society.
We rehearsed hard the day after we arrived with the orchestra, Galin revelling in the chance to finally perform the concerto with a professional symphony orchestra full of players of great experience and talent. Initial rehearsals took place on the top floor at the Opera House itself, though the concert the next day was to be held in the Philharmonic Hall, as part of an extensive Winter Festival of the Arts in Varna. It was a long and tiring day, and also in the programme was Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, so we had much to get through in very little time.
The next day, Thursday, we met up in the Philharmonic Hall itself in the morning to rehearse the Brahms programme on the stage in preparation for that night’s concert. Also in the programme was a wonderful Mass by a Norwegian composer, to be performed by massed choirs from Varna with string orchestra, under the direction of Galin’s father Gancho Ganchev, so it was to be a busy day for us and all the musicians involved.
Galin coped so well with the rigours of the rehearsals, and also the fact that we were doing the concert on the bare minimum of rehearsal, which tested musicians, conductor and soloists alike. The Brahms Second Concerto is a massive work, which demands everything from the solo pianist, but also demands huge sensitivity and artistry from orchestral players accompanying it. Even at its most grandiose, it retains qualities of Chamber Music in terms of the interplay between soloist and orchestra, and is the best part of an hour long, requiring huge concentration on the part of all involved.
The concert in the evening, which was very well attended, was superb. Galin Ganchev is a remarkable pianist, who combines a fiery technique with the ability to create the most poetic and heartfelt moments in his playing. His performance in Varna, to his home crowd, was a triumph and the orchestra rose to the challenge, with horn and cello solos being carefully managed, and from my own point of view, as conductor, the whole event being a wonderful celebration of both the music of Brahms and also the talents of one of Shrewsbury’s finest ever music scholars. Playing the entire concerto from memory, he gave a performance of huge stature and detail, received enthusiastically by the large and appreciative audience.
It was also very fitting, that in addition to Galin’s parents being able to see him perform in his home city, an event which due to their living abroad, happens so rarely, that Gareth Jenkins, Galin’s UK guardian was able to join us for the concert and the last few days of the trip. It is through the good offices of Gareth Jenkins that Galin in fact joined the School, and Gareth has done a wonderful job of looking after both the interests of Galin and his parents during his time at the School.
Twenty years ago, Galin’s parents started Varna Children’s Opera as a project for young singers and actors in Varna. During those years they have performed many musicals and children’s operas to great acclaim, and are now affiliated to the Varna Opera House, where most performances take place. Galin himself grew up performing in that tradition, and it was obvious when he went back last week that he is held in huge affection by current and past members of the Children’s Opera, with whom he performed on many occasions.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend several rehearsals before Sunday’s performance of Jekyll, and was able to speak to the young cast about the background to the musical itself, which is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The similarities between the way we work here at Shrewsbury when creating and rehearsing a musical, and the way in which Gancho, his wife and production team do also in Varna, are quite remarkable. There is the same huge level of commitment and love for the product as is engendered here at the School, the same level of professional intent, and the same desire to attain the highest of professional standards. Seeing then the eventual performance on last Sunday took my breath away, and I felt hugely humbled as a composer, teacher and performer. The energy and talent on display on the stage, with over fifty young Bulgarian actors and actresses as well as a few professionals in lead roles, sang, danced and acted their way through our musical with massive panache, style and brilliance.
The show looked and sounded wonderful, with the dialogue in Bulgarian, and the songs sung in English with Bulgarian sur-titles projected onto screens either side of the stage. As with the Brahms, the audience rose to their feet to applaud such wonderful young talent.
So what a trip for those of us fortunate enough to be able to go. What memories and what impressions of a city and country so rich in artistic life, and what possibilities now exist for future cooperation and cultural links between Varna and Shrewsbury School. Bulgaria should be on any European Gap year itinerary, and anyone wishing to study archaeology should make every effort to go there to participate in a summer dig or similar. It is a remarkable country, full of remarkable people, whose generosity of spirit knows no bounds, and whose determination to make the best of sometimes difficult circumstances is an inspiration to the rest of us.
Shrewsbury School has been a great story for Galin, and the tuition he has received from Peter Bradley-Fulgoni, Shrewsbury’s wonderfully talented principal piano teacher and a concert pianist himself of great distinction, has stood Galin in excellent stead for the next phase of his career. Hopefully a major conservatoire will be the next step after his final year at Shrewsbury next year, but there will still be much for audiences to enjoy during his time at the School. Shrewsbury can be just so proud of the huge achievements of this talented Salopian thus far, as can his parents and his wonderfully supportive home city of Varna.