Music for Bella

Conductor, soloist and composer (from left) Tecwyn Evans, Bella Hristova and Anthony Ritchie...
Conductor, soloist and composer (from left) Tecwyn Evans, Bella Hristova and Anthony Ritchie collaborate on Saturday in the premiere of Ritchie's Violin Concerto No 1. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The Southern Sinfonia's concert on Saturday includes the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Dunedin composer Anthony Ritchie, played by Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova, for whom it was written. Charmian Smith reports.

In 2010 at a Southern Sinfonia concert for the Otago Festival of the Arts when Bella Hristova was playing the Beethoven violin concerto, and Anthony Ritchie's third symphony was being premiered, each was impressed by the other's work.

Assoc Prof Ritchie asked the young Bulgarian violinist if she would be willing to play a violin concerto of his as he'd been thinking of writing one.

''I said: 'Of course I would', so over the last few years he wrote it and sent it to me, and now we are going to premiere it. It's very exciting,'' Hristova said in a phone interview from Christchurch where she was playing the Beethoven violin concerto with the Christchurch symphony orchestra last week.

On Saturday, she premieres the Ritchie concerto with the Southern Sinfonia, conducted by former Dunedinite Tecwyn Evans who is now based in Europe.

''It's a wonderful work. The more I get to know it and the more I'm playing it, the more I'm falling in love with it,'' she said.

''I'll be so excited to get it together with the orchestra finally. I've been preparing my part and I have a copy of the score, but it's one thing to imagine it in my head and quite a different thing to get it together. It's a very beautiful piece and it has many catchy tunes and melodies and is full of dance and rhythm,'' she said.

Prof Ritchie explains: ''I really like the Bulgarian flair Bella brings to her music. There's the clarity of her playing, a mixture of things I really like, technically a very pure and very clean sound I'd been imagining for a concerto.''

He planned to write an epic piece which pitted the soloist against the orchestra, the idea of the individual at odds with the community, he said.

''That comes through in the first movement which is quite long, but then in the second and third movement it changes tack and becomes a much happier piece. That came about through the ideas developing, so it's not such an epic piece after all! Sometimes that happens. You start off with an idea and it changes as it goes along. The second half is more dance-like. I like eastern European folk music and there's an element of that in the last movement particularly, it's springy and lots of notes.''

Although he had both Hristova and the Southern Sinfonia in mind when he wrote the concerto, it was not commissioned, but written as part of his job at the University of Otago, he said.

Not only is he looking forward to hearing his work finally come to life, he's also looking forward to working with conductor Tecwyn Evans again.

Evans studied composition with Prof Ritchie in 1991 when he was a student at Otago University and he was also the Sinfonia's composer-in-residence in 1995.

In 2012 Evans conducted the NZSO's CD recording of Ritchie's works, A Bugle Will Do.

''[Tecwyn] is a composer as well. It's really good having a conductor who thinks like a composer as well. It makes it easier,'' Prof Ritchie said.

Although Bella Hristova has performed world premieres of other works including David Ludwig's Saturn Bells, and has commissioned a piece by American composer Joan Tower to premiere in New York in March next year, Ritchie's work is the first full-length violin concerto she has done a world premiere of, she said.

The wonderful thing about working with living composers is that you can discuss the work and make the occasional change and not feel guilty about it.

You can only guess what Beethoven wanted, she said.

Hristova grew up in a musical family in Bulgaria.

Her mother was a pianist and her father a Russian composer so she knew she would become a musician in some capacity.

Although she wanted to learn the piano, her mother had a dream that her daughter would become a violinist, so she started learning violin when she was 6.

''I remember when I should have been practising violin, if she wasn't home I'd always be at the piano trying to make a go of it, but I can't play piano. I love playing the violin, but I do remember it was something she wanted for me.''

Gradually her mother's dream became her own dream, perhaps when she went to the United States as an exchange student at age 13 to study violin further, or perhaps it was being inspired by her violin teachers, Ida Kavafian during her formative years at Curtis when she was 17, and later Jamie Laredo, she said.

In 2007, she won the Michael Hill violin competition and the following year did a concert tour, playing with Michael Houstoun, Diedre Irons and two orchestras.

She returned to New Zealand to play with the Southern Sinfonia, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Auckland Philharmonia, as well giving a recital at the Michael Hill violin competition.

New Zealand is her favourite country and she would love to live here, except it's so far away, she says. She now lives in Philadelphia.

Her violin was made in Italy by Nicolò Amati in 1655. Although originally a baroque instrument, it has been modernised with a longer finger board, modern bow and strings.

Her repertoire is wide-ranging, from Bach to contemporary works, concertos with orchestra, solo violin and chamber music.

''If I really believe in the music I will play it and I'll learn it. My repertoire is always expanding,'' she said.

Her recent recording, Bella Unaccompanied, was centred around Bach's Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, and includes other, more recent solo violin works.

''I very much like playing for unaccompanied violin. I think it's because the piano is my favourite instrument and I think when I play unaccompanied it's the closest I can get to that, having the violin be a complete instrument,'' she said.

''For me the Chaconne has every human feeling and emotion in it, all combining in about 14 minutes of music. It's my desert island piece. If there was one piece to practise for the rest of my life it would be that. If I were to pick one piece to listen to it would probably be something different, probably a piece of piano literature.''

At almost 30, she already has an enviable solo career, but says it's a work-in-progress.

''There are so many wonderful players and maybe fewer concerts. Some orchestras in the US are struggling a lot but other orchestras are popping up so it's always changing. It's a lot of hard work, besides being a good player.''

She performs mainly in the US and Asia. She is going to Tokyo for a chamber music festival when she leaves New Zealand.

It's hard to break into the European scene because she lives in the US, she said.

Describing herself as a ''nervous flyer'', she finds the travelling tiring, especially in the US with huge airports and countless security rules and regulations, but, she says, ''To me the music makes it worthwhile.''


The concert
Bella Hristova will be playing the world premiere of Anthony Ritchie's Violin Concerto No 1 in the Southern Sinfonia's subscription concert, conducted by Tecwyn Evans, in the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday, May 31, at 8pm. The concert also includes Bach: Toccata and Fugue, and Sibelius: Symphony No 1.

Hristova will be available to sign copies of her CD Bella Unaccompanied after the concert.




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