Violin star glad to be back

Bella Hristova. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Bella Hristova. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Rising young violinist Bella Hristova has returned to share more of her winning ways. Gillian Thomas reports.

Rising violin star Bella Hristova is happy to be back in New Zealand, the country that makes "the best eggs Benedict".

It is also the country that gave her career a shot in the arm when she won the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

Hristova says the Queenstown competition is gaining in recognition around the world.

The recognition and experience her win delivered led to a successful audition with the international management agency, Young Concert Artist.

She is now one of just four violinists on their books.

It is not surprising, perhaps, considering how reviewers pull out the superlatives to describe the 24-year-old Bulgarian soloist's performances.

In 2007, Michael Hill International Violin Competition jury member Pamela Frank put it this way: "Her playing gave me goosebumps and made me cry".

This year, on Christmas Eve, Hristova will make her debut at Carnegie Hall where she will play Bach's Concerto for Three Violins with Cho-Liang Lin, Kyoko Takezawa, and the New York String Orchestra, conducted by Jaime Laredo.

Oddly, she is virtually unknown in her native Bulgaria.

"My first music teacher there runs the music world and we didn't leave on very good terms. It's not a good place for music," she says.

That is not to say there was no opportunity for her countryfolk to pick up on her talent.

She began learning the violin in Bulgaria at age 6 and just a few months later played live on television.

By the age of 11 she was studying under Joseph Radionvo in Sofia, before being invited to the United States at the age of 13, to study at the Meadowmount School of Music in New York State.

The US is home now, although she makes regular trips back to Bulgaria to visit her mother.

Music runs in Hristova's family, which mixes Bulgarian and Russian heritage.

Her mother was a school choral conductor and piano teacher and her late father a composer.

Travel has become a way of life and Hristova says she loves exploring new places but hates flying.

"When we flew into Queenstown the view was breathtaking but I thought we were going to land on a mountain," she recalls of her experience at the Michael Hill competition.

The winner's tour of New Zealand, part of the prize from the competition, also remains clearly imprinted on her memory.

"It was an unforgettable experience, playing 17 to 18 concerts in the span of one month and playing with such wonderful people as Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons. Plus we drove everywhere, so I really got to see how beautiful the country is."

Dunedin was not on the winner's tour itinerary.

When she returned to New Zealand this year her first "must do" was, according to Hristova, a no-brainer.

"I just had to go order a flat white and eggs Benedict. I lived on that on my winner's tour in 2008. I love coffee and Kiwis just make the best eggs Benedict. The hollandaise sauce is better than the greasy stuff they serve in the US."

Hristova has a very old travelling companion, her violin, which is more than 350 years old.

The instrument dates from 1655 and is the handiwork of one Nicolò Amati, known in modern times as the "Grand Amati".

His violins are much sought-after.

Well curved, long-cornered, and strongly and cleanly purfled (inlaid), they are considered to represent the height of elegance in violin-making.

Hristova has played the Amati for the past eight years, after it was lent to her by someone she describes as "a generous individual who heard me play and who followed my progress".

She says the Amati is very rewarding to play but also very difficult.

"You have to learn how much pressure to put on it and you have to be aware of the effect climatic changes can have on it."

According to Hristova, her Amati loves the acrobatic challenges of Tchaikovsky and with her own Russian heritage she is naturally drawn to works by the Russian master.

When she features in the Passion and Power Naylor Love Celebrity Concert in Dunedin, she will be playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, considered to be among the most technically difficult works for violin, dripping in Russian romanticism.

Hristova describes it as a "grand" work and although it is also one of the best known of all violin concertos she says she doesn't let the audience's familiarity with the work influence how she plays it.

"I don't think artists should be trying to play or trying to anticipate what the audience might want. I believe you must play the way you feel the music."

She also thinks that an instrumentalist has to be part actor to convey the mood of the music.

"You are not always going to be in the same mood as the music, so you need to draw on other resources to convey that. I develop that mood as I begin to play."

Gillian Thomas is a Dunedin writer.


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