Bulgarian Genius: Pancho Vladigerov & other musings by Emerson Eads



My introduction to the Bulgarian master, Pancho Vladigerov was unforgettable. I was 22 years old and in Varna, Bulgaria conducting Verdi's Requiem with the Varna City Orchestra. The orchestra was made up of professors from the university and their respective students who, with their passion and talent, made the experience one I shall never forget. After epic four-hour rehearsals everyone would be sweaty and tired, but instead of the immediate diaspora upon the minute of rehearsal ending, which I'm used to seeing here in the states,  one of the younger players started playing a folk-tune. Before long the whole string section was ablaze with improvising. I asked Krasi, a friend and cellist in the orchestra, what this was all about. She told me it was a famous Bulgarian folk tune, Dilmano, Dilbero. The fire of improvisation had soon spread to the brass and woodwinds, and before long the timpanist and bass drummer, tired from Verdi's Dies Irae, found renewed energy and begin interjecting at propitious moments. 

I stood transfixed, listening to the jagged melody. Uninhibited by meter it whirled around my ears and eventually found its way into my bloodstream. After the orchestra had tired of the improvisational orchestrating of their beloved Dilmano, Dilbero , the kids packed up their instruments and descended upon the local pubs. I hung out with Krasi, and the timpanist and composer, who, during our rehearsals, "devoured" the full score of the Verdi when he wasn't busy playing. 

When I told my new Bulgarian friends of my new fascination and foot-stomping, sweaty-love for their folk tunes, Krasi compiled a cd for me of Pancho Vladigerov who I had never heard of until then. She told me that he represented the zenith of Bulgarian musical tradition. So I listened. As I do with most things that I like I overindulged. From that point on, I became fascinated by this Bulgarian genius. 

Pancho Vladigerov was born in 1889 in Switzerland, and later went to school in Germany, eventually graduating with many honors including twice winning the Mendelssohn Prize from what is now the Berlin University of the Arts. Upon graduating he worked with Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. His decision to leave Berlin in 1932, with so many accolades and personal triumphs, couldn't have been an easy choice, but  being Jewish, it was no doubt key to he and his music's survival. He was a Bulgarian nationalist composer and taught composition and piano. His student, Alexis Weissenberg, famed pianist praised by Szell and hailed by Karajan as "one of the best pianists of our time."   Not only was he a fabulous composer and pedagogue, he also 

On my cd was Vladigerov's Piano Concerto No. 3. Full of fireworks and big orchestral gestures in the first and third movements, the second movement is what became my "comfort food" long after I had returned to Alaska. It begins with an introduction by solo cello, and then the piano enters, and on a few playfully sprinkled A♭'s in the right hand, the orchestra enters. After another cello solo, the piano is given a chorale in 5/4 which sings simply and profoundly. After several bars the strings undergird the piano and it climaxes eventually with brass and percussion joining the passionate throng.  

Also on the cd was his son Alexander's Dilmano, Dilbero  Variations Op. 3. My pianist friend, Jamila aptly described this piece as Ginastera meets Rachmaninov. Jagged rhythms, catchy tunes, foot-stomping, unrefined passionate keyboard storms erupt in this wonderful piece. Listening brings me back to the cafe's, the sweaty rehearsals, the hugs and kisses, but more than anything else, the passion that I witnessed and felt while in Varna, Bulgaria.