Ciao, Bella!: Violinist Bella Hristova Performs for Quad City Arts Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 02:55

Bella HristovaImagine if you will: You're six years old. You've been playing the violin for six months. And you're about to make your professional debut on live television.

For most youths, this would be the recipe for a panic attack. But not for acclaimed violinist Bella Hristova, here as Quad City Arts' latest Visiting Artist. After all, the Bulgarian native had her cat to comfort her.

Sort of.

"It wasn't a big piece," Hristova says of her first professional violin solo. "It was a little piece. But it was for live Italian TV, in the biggest hall in Bulgaria. And there were monitors on the stage, and my Mom saw that I was smiling - or laughing, or something - right before I started playing. And she asked me later what I was thinking about, and I told her that I was thinking about how I pushed my cat into the sink. She walked near the sink and I just pushed her in."

Hristova laughs, and - during the course of our recent phone interview - not for the last time. "I guess I was relaxed if I was thinking about my cat," she says.

The 21-year-old doesn't say whether she always uses that memory to assuage her nerves, but in the 15 years since that childhood experience, Hristova has emerged as a most confident and gifted musician; the Boston Globe has characterized her as "impressively poised," while the Ann Arbor News described her playing as possessing "warmth, rhythmic vitality, and a wonderful range of color."

And the professional credits and accolades Hristova has amassed certainly back up those claims. In recent years, she has performed with Washington's Olympia Symphony Orchestra, the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. She was the first-prize winner at the International Enesco Competition in Romania, the grand-prize winner at the Michigan American String Teachers Competition, and, in 2001, the grand-prize winner of the Czech Republic's International Kocian Competition.

Obviously, Hristova had been passionate about the violin from the very beginning, right?

"No, not right away," she admits. "It took a while. My mom basically shoved it into my hand, because she wanted her daughter to be a violinist."

Born to musical parents - her late father was a composer and her mother, currently a piano teacher, was once a choir conductor - Hristova initially balked at the discipline required to be a great musician. "My Mom always made me practice, but I didn't really like to do it," she says. "She wanted me to practice maybe three, four hours a day. And when I came to Curtis, I was on my own, so I really had to make the decision to go practice."

The "Curtis" Hristova refers to is Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where she has been a student since 2003. ("I don't want to graduate!" she exclaims. "I'm a senior now, but I'll stay a fifth year.") Yet she had been living in America for four years prior to her enrollment at Curtis - she attended the Meadowmount School of Music in the summer of 1999, followed by four years spent at the Rudolph Steiner High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan - and says that even at the age of 13, the decision to leave Bulgaria was a relatively easy one.

"I kind of wanted to leave," she reveals. "The situation in my country wasn't great then. It's still not really economically great."

Hristova admits, though, that her departure "was really hard for my Mom," as the youth was originally planning to be in America merely for the one summer at Meadowmount. ("I actually had a return ticket at the end of those two months," she says.) But at the season's end, she was offered the chance to study at Ann Arbor's University of Michigan School of Music while also attending Rudolph Steiner, and it was an offer that Hristova - and, eventually, her mother - gladly accepted.

"So I left [Bulgaria], and then, from here, I talked my Mom into letting me stay," says Hristova.

As her current educational and professional obligations would suggest, the musician now finds herself playing the violin far more than the "three, four hours a day" her mother used to advocate. "I work really hard for a few days - maybe four, five hours a day - and then I take maybe a day off, or a light day. And when I say ‘day off,' I still play for, like, rehearsals and coachings and that kind of stuff, but I don't actually sit in a room by myself and practice."

And what does Hristova do for relaxation? "I like to watch TV, and lots of it," she laughs, citing Grey's Anatomy and America's Next Top Model as favorites. "TV is my weak, weak, weak spot."

But even if she tires of her relentless schedule, Hristova never tires of the particular instrument she plays on - a 1655 Amati violin, on permanent loan to her by famed violinist Louis Krasner. "It's, like, the nicest thing ever," she says. "I immediately fell in love with it. Amatis are usually not known for their big sound. They're known for more color and depth, which this has, but it also has a huge sound for an Amati. For any violin. I've had it for maybe five years now and it's, like, the best instrument."

And, of course, Hristova never tires of the music. While she admits that her favorite piece is "whatever I'm playing at the moment," she has a fondness for 19th- and 20th-Century Russian works, and says, "I really like Schubert. It's just beautiful music and it says so much. I heard a great concert last night - Leon Fleischer played a piano recital here in Philly. He played Schubert's last piano sonata, and afterwards I said to the person I was with, ‘I can die now.'"

Hristova laughs. "It was the most amazing experience. I actually don't go to concerts as much as a should. I should go more, but usually I'm in front of the TV."

She's also, on occasion, on the radio. In 2002, the violinist made her first appearance on Garrison Keillor's beloved A Prairie Home Companion radio program, in a concert performance held in tandem with the Tanglewood Music Festival, in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.

"That was great!" Hristova exclaims. "It was 11,000 people! It was huge!" Hristova's performance was so well-received that Keillor invited her to perform on A Prairie Home Companion again in 2004, when the show was being performed live in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and when, after the show, she was introduced to a famous member of the audience.

"Backstage, I'd heard the buzz - ‘Ohh, Bruce Springsteen's here!'" she says. "So he came backstage and I met him. And he was, like, ‘Hi, it's nice to meet you,' and I was, like, ‘Hi.'

"I didn't know who he was," she says with a laugh.

While in the Quad Cities, Quad City Arts will - as is usual with Visiting Artists - have Hristova performing at numerous area venues and schools, but don't be surprised if you also see her at the movies, as she admits to watching films she likes "over and over again." This routine was perhaps initiated by her early days at the Meadowmount School of Music, when she learned English by viewing - repeatedly - Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies. "They were the only movies we had at Meadowmount," she laughs. "There was one in particular - The Temple of Doom. At one point I had it memorized."

And besides English, the native Bulgarian learned something else from Spielberg's works: "I'm not a big fan of snakes."

 

While in residency with Quad City Arts, Bella Hristova will perform at the Butterworth Center on February 8 (2 p.m.) and the Figge Art Museum on February 10 (2 p.m.), and will play a full-length, public concert at Bettendorf's Redeemer Lutheran Church on February 17 (7 p.m.). For more information on Hristova's local appearances, contact Quad City Arts at (309) 793-1213 or (http://www.quadcityarts.com).


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