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Thursday, February 21, 2013


(Hristo Kardjiev)

Classical Notes / Profile – by William Charlton-Perkins

Then, now, and looking ahead.

Hristo Kardjiev, until recently the concert master of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, recalls a life spent occupying the front desk of orchestras he has worked with, and looks to the future…

Silence is golden. Chances are you’ll find yourself fielding those three words as an unequivocal response if you canvas the opinions of a group of professional musicians – particularly those who teach, or earn their livelihood as members of an orchestra – about the joys of listening to music as a leisure pastime.

I muted this point while chatting to Hristo Kardjiev over coffee last week. In corroboration, the recently-retired concert master of the KZN Philharmonic recalled an incident when the orchestra was on tour. Their bus driver had just begun piping what he thought would be appropriate music over the bus’s sound system, when he was barraged with requests from his passengers to desist.

“We listen differently to the way an audience does. It’s a core part of the job,” Kardjiev explained. Working with an ongoing string of visiting conductors from season to season certainly brings its own challenges for orchestral players, who constantly have to strive to realise the requirements of the man on the podium that week.

“While preparing a piece for a performance, a good conductor knows how to find four of five key pressure points, and work on those with his players. Everything else then falls into place. But good conductors are rare.”

Looking back over the past 22 years and more during which he’s occupied the KZNPO’s first desk, Kardjiev feels there have been relatively few outstanding guest conductors, compared to the wealth of fine soloists the orchestra has hosted. He says the stand-out among conductors he’s played under in Durban is Zubin Mehta, who visited our shores for the inaugural concert of the orchestra’s now longstanding World Symphony Series.

Kardjiev was born in Bulgaria in 1948 and graduated with distinction from the Bulgarian Music Academy in Sofia before specialising in Weimar in Germany with a Master’s degree in Music.

For 20 years, he was the concert master of the National Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, also pursuing a career as a soloist and teacher, while travelling extensively abroad. While in his early 20’s, he played under the legendary Herbert von Karajan. Other international luminaries he has worked with include the likes of Shostakovich, Maazel, Oistrakh and Ashkenazy.

Since emigrating to South Africa in 1990 to take up his post with the KZN Philharmonic, Kardjiev’s collaborations with international soloists and conductors has continued unabated with the guest artists the orchestra has hosted.

“A major beacon during my years with the KZNPO was certainly the Orchestra’s invitation to perform alongside the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London as a joint celebration of South Africa’s 10th anniversary of democracy, the KZNPO’s 20th anniversary and the LSO’s centenary.”

Back on home turf, Kardjiev cites the visit to Durban of the renowned Israeli violinist, Pinchas Zuckerman, as another memorable experience, punctuated by a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in which Zukerman doubled as soloist and conductor.

Kardjiev himself has made the occasional transition from playing to conducting, with performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Handel’s Messiah under his belt.

When I asked him how he rates the challenges of conducting as opposed to those of playing an instrument, he mischievously quoted the great Russian cellist-turned-conductor, Dmitri Rostropovich, whose tongue-in-cheek response to a similar question after an early career appearance on the podium was: “No-one ever told me how easy it would be.”

How does Kardjiev see his future panning out, now that he is free of the rigours of managing the weekly roster of orchestral players and similar duties as concert master of an orchestra?

“Right now, I’m weighing up my options. There is always a shortage of good string players out there, particularly young orchestral recruits. So teaching is certainly something I’d like to continue doing.”

Kardjiev already has a successful career teaching violin at Durban Girls College and at Embury College, also privately. I commented that practicing musicians do not always make good teachers. Does Kardjiev have a particular approach to working with his violin pupils? “I agree with the principles of the Suzuki method, which sets out to establish the confidence of very young players from the outset.”

“And there is much to be learned from the dictum of the late Dorothy Lelay, for many years the doyenne of violin teaching at New York’s Juilliard School. She held that the secret to successful teaching lies in knowing what not to say to a pupil. Their self-esteem and confidence can so easily be broken down, to the detriment of their development.”

Teaching aside, how else does Mr Kardjiev contemplate enjoying the time that is now open to him? As with many musicians I know, he admits to a nurturing a creative bent for cooking. So, who knows, perhaps a Hristo Kardjiev Cook Book is in the offing.

However things turn out, scores of concert-goers accustomed to his presence on the KZNPO stage will wish him well. - William Charlton-Perkins