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It was in a daytime talk by Jonathan James that St George’s Bristol CEO Suzanne Rolt first discovered the music of Bulgaria-born composer Dobrinka Tabakova. Instantly captivated, it was only a matter of time before the composer’s music would make it into a programme at the venue. St George’s is thrilled, then, to be able to present a whole evening dedicated to Dobrinka in honour of International Women’s Day 2017. Her music pivots between worlds, conjuring sensuous and radiant sonorities that enchant listeners on their very first hearing.  The busy artist, who was just last week announced as the BBC Concert Orchestra’s new composer in residence, set aside some time to answer a few questions ahead of her visit to St George’s on 8 March…

Dobrinka, we’re so delighted to be showcasing your music at St George’s for the first time. What can you tell us about the programme?

It’s a pleasure to come to Bristol again and I was so happy when Suzanne suggested this profile concert a few years ago. Due to some diary clashes we had to wait a bit, but I am thrilled that we’ve made it work and we’ve put together a programme that I think will give a good introduction to my music. Bookending the programme are two very close pieces to my heart- a string septet called ‘Such different paths’ and a suite for viola, harpsichord and strings called ‘Suite in Old Style’, which was inspired by Rameau. String instruments play an important role in my sonic world and in this concert there will be a chance to explore some of the ways I’ve incorporated strings in my music.

For those new to your music, how would you describe it?

It’s important to me to write music which I’d like to hear, that’s the obvious starting point. I’m happy when people say that they found the music accessible and challenging at the same time. I enjoy music which moves me, so I hope I can give that back to the musicians and the audience.

Your music isn’t restricted to the concert hall; you’ve worked with choreographers and filmmakers. Is being adaptable important to being a modern composer?

I think this is connected to the time we’re living in. Our world is very visual and the marriage of music and other art forms is all around us. It’s quite natural for me, and for many of my colleagues. Also, I studied at a conservatoire where we had actors, musicians and stage managers all in one building. I was involved in many cross-departmental projects during my student days and that makes me very comfortable collaborating with like-minded creatives of all fields.

Who has inspired you as an artist? Who are your heroes?

There have been many inspirational people, from my family and from composers and musicians I’ve met or listened to. But one story comes to mind. When I was 15 I was accepted to go to a summer course in France, the Greek architect-turned-composer Iannis Xenakis was giving masterclasses there and it had been an ambition of mine to meet him in person. I was really fascinated by his story, his background and his method of composing. I still remember how excited I was to meet him after one of his lectures. I had brought some of my scores to show him, and he graciously took the time to speak with me. After leafing through the scores for a while he looked at me and said ‘don’t be afraid to be different’. I have been grateful for his words ever since and for the fact that I managed to meet him.

You spent your early years growing up in Bulgaria; did you know then that you wanted to be a composer? Was your music-making encouraged?

I have the fondest memories of my childhood in my hometown Plovdiv. It’s a beautiful city, has an impressive ancient Roman amphitheatre where my family would go to opera productions every summer and again as a family we’d go to most of the concerts of the orchestra. But my first meeting with music was probably at home. Although there are no professional musicians in my family, they all love music and my grandfather had a large LP collection, which he played almost constantly. So his love of music was passed to me. I started taking piano lessons when I was 7 and as soon as I could play a little was already improvising. My first piano teacher was strict, but surprisingly liberal and never discouraged me from making up half of the piece I was supposed to have learned that week. My parents also were supportive and when we moved to London I was accepted to the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music (JRAM) and started taking formal composition lessons, as well as conducting and continued my piano studies.

You’ve long been a champion of classical music by living composers being performed in concert. What are your thoughts on concert programming in general? Do you think there is too much reliance on ‘the classics’?

I’ve spent over 10 years organising concerts and putting on festivals and events, which started back in my student days. Presenting music by living composers has always been important to me and I think it is the key to keeping programmes relevant and alive. No-one would question going to a modern art gallery to get a feeling of the culture of our time, so we should be doing the same for music. There is a reason why some works have become classics, they are masterpieces and we should treasure them and make sure that they can be appreciated by future generations too. But the link between the present and the best of the past can only be kept if we give a voice to the present. And at this moment we have the most colourful music being written- so many styles, so many inspirations… It takes work to create cohesive programmes, but it’s worth investing the time to represent the world around us, as it is now.

Have you encountered any specific challenges as a woman composer? Why are there, seemingly, so few women composers and conductors in the spotlight? Or is it just that their voices are struggling to be heard?

Although I’ve never personally felt different for this reason, it’s a balance that has to be considered. The visibility of women composers and conductors is probably the best it has ever been, and I’m grateful that I am living now and not 100 years ago, for example. Much great work has been done by the generations before ours, and we have to keep creating good work and keep accumulating momentum.

You’ve just been announced as composer in residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra, which is exciting. How long is your tenure, and what do you hope to achieve with the orchestra?

It is so exciting to be working with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the position is currently until 2021, which is such a luxury. To work with a great orchestra over an extended period, to be part of their team, to really see how they work, to get to know the musicians and write for them- is fantastic. I have many ideas, which we have to sit down and discuss, but the prospect of developing a folio of larger works is really great.

What can you tell us about the ensemble performing your music here in March? There are some familiar faces on the list!

As well as incredible musicians these are some of my dearest friends- I feel lucky that we have met and have remained colleagues and friends for so many years. Maxim Rysanov, Kristina Blaumane and Roman Mints were all studying at the Guildhall at the same time as me and one of the first pieces I wrote as a student was a solo viola suite – Pirin, for Maxim Rysanov. This will be performed at the concert at St George’s, but transcribed for violin. I have always looked for musicians who are curious and ‘daring’ enough to look for new music and expand the repertoire, there is no greater gift for a composer than to meet such musicians. Each of the musicians has had an important role and been part of significant premieres of my music and I respect and admire them. This is the first time that we’ll come together as the ‘Tabakova Players’, so who knows, we could make it into a habit!

Any top tips for aspiring young composers?

Write the music you care about; find the musicians who take the care to perform it with conviction; be organised.

With thanks to Dobrinka and her management team. Dobrinka will give insights into her music as part of a pre-concert talk, taking place at 6.15pm on Weds 8 Mar. It is free to concert ticket holders.

Tabakova Players – International Women’s Day Concert

Wednesday 8 March, 7.30pm
Tickets £15, £10 (plus fees), Free 8-25a (CAVATINA)

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