Nayden Todorov, music director of the Sofia Philharmonic:
An orchestra is a microcosm of society
Trying to ingratiate yourself to everyone would only derail you from your own path
24 June, 2017
Close-up: Born on 8 April 1974 in Plovdiv, Nayden Todorov is a trumpet player, a pianist, a composer and a conductor. He is an alumnus of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, where he studied under the great conductor Prof. Uros Lajovic. Naydenov, who previously headed the State Opera in Rousse, was appointed music director of the Sofia Philharmonic in January 2017. He recently conducted an Austrian music concert in the UK and his short-term programme includes conducting the Sofia Philharmonic at the festivals in Varna and Pravets, as well as a series of concerts in Germany in the summer.
- Maestro Todorov, if the saying that all orchestras have their own spirit is true, what is your impression of the Sofia Philharmonic’s one?
- To me, the Sofia Philharmonic is and has always been a very special orchestra. I had my first concert with it in 2001 and later the then-director Yavor Dimitrov invited me to be a visiting principal conductor. I will always be grateful to him because those concerts allowed me to really get acquainted with the orchestra, infusing our current fresh beginning with a sense of familiarity. We know each other and things have been smooth from the start. The Sofia Philharmonic has its own spirit. On the one hand, it is an incredibly tolerant orchestra. On the other, it is extremely responsive to the conductor’s instructions. In some cases, orchestras are simply unable to produce for their conductors, no matter how much they want to. I have had experiences with western organisations when my stepping on the stage was met with dead silence. The moment I stopped waving the baton to say something, complete silence would settle over the hall again. For me, as a Bulgarian, this is too frustrating, being faced with 100 musicians staring at me, waiting to hear what I will say. The atmosphere here is looser and yet this is one of the most disciplined Bulgarian orchestras. It is no coincidence that anyone who has ever conducted the Sofia Philharmonic is eager to come back.
- Politicians traditionally have 100-day period of tolerance before they are expected to produce results. As the leader of the Sofia Philharmonic, how much of a breathing room have you been given?
- In Bulgaria, any change of leadership is associated with disruption. There were people in this building who felt uneasy about the change of music director in the middle of the season. Perhaps their sentiment was reasonable. At times, even I find myself a bit uncomfortable presenting a programme that I do not completely believe in. But it must be performed, seeing as it has already been promoted. There is an interesting precedent in the west. The new music director of the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), who will assume his duties in September 2020, was announced as early as September 2016. Moreover, the two directors are set to work together in the last year before the shift. To my mind, one of the most dangerous things in Bulgaria is the lack of continuity. Unfortunately, this problem affects all areas; it is not confined to music.
- What problems have you identified at this stage?
- What I saw at the end of January, was fragmentation of the orchestra, each faction with its own vision for a variety of things. Unfortunately, this division still exists. I make a conscious effort to mitigate these forces as much as I can and hopefully I will continue to have the musicians’ cooperation in that regard. The important thing is that the Sofia Philharmonic is truly a microcosm of Bulgarian society, which is torn by differences and conflicts. If we really think about it, these disputes are not the product of some major evil but rather the result of lost faith in the good. It may sound a bit naive but that is the truth.
- A number of big names left the organisation embittered before you came. What is the prevailing attitude now?
- Trying to ingratiate yourself to everyone would only derail you from your own path. I try to work in a way that I will be happy with. Everything is all right as long as at the end of the day I have the feeling that I have done something I believe in. This is not always the case but my focus is in that direction - to do the things I believe in. As for those who left before me, I have done my best to bring back some of those who left the Sofia Philharmonic. Martin Panteleev, Ljubka Biagioni and Emil Tabakov will conduct, as well as Maxim Eshkenazy, Yordan Dafov and others. I believe that once you have become a part of an orchestra’s history, you can never sever that connection because it leaves an open wound for both parties.
- Can elitist art forms be commercially successful as well?
- This is a difficult subject. When cultural organisations are forced to make their own money, art turns into industry to a certain extent. And this is not its mission. To me, the delegated budget system we were forced into in 2011 has several pluses and a whole lot of negatives. The good thing is that it allowed individual institutes to form their own policy and distribute money between funds at their discretion. The system also gives us an opportunity to earn more money if we can find the way and this key moment is also a drawback. It is my belief that the goal of cultural organisations is to shape society’s tastes. However, delegated budgets naturally make us cater to mainstream tastes because we need the attendance to justify the state subsidy. And this is the problem - how can we shape and satisfy tastes at the same time? The government has to decide whether the best idea is for art to be mainstream or mould the next generations and take care of society’s art education.
For example, two models, two terms were introduced in Austria several years ago - E-music and U-music (in other words, educational or pure entertainment). The second type was given the leeway to largely support itself and had a low level of grants. It created its commercial mechanisms for development and that led to a huge tourist flow to the country entertained by performances of Johann Strauss and even Mozert pieces. The other kind of music may not entertain but it pushes the audience to evolve intellectually.
- The great Emil Chakarov once said that if a conductor waves the baton without actually hearing the music, they would die of physical and mental exhaustion in the second act of the opera. Besides music, what keeps you in shape, what energises and inspires you?
- I am yet to meet the person that can perform all these moves without music to give them energy. If you really think about it, the bulk of conductors live to a ripe old age. Perhaps the reason is that their job is a combination of physical and mental exertion, with music there to nourish their soul. In other words, there is a perfect balance there. As for me, outside of music I like to write. I write stories but I keep them strictly for my friends only. It is my way of relaxing and putting all troubles aside.