What have been the main influences on your decision to pursue a career in music?
I was born in Vidin, (a town situated in the NW of Bulgaria, on the banks of the River Danube, 200 km from the capital Sofia), where I spent the first 12 years of my life, before moving to a specialist music school some 400 km away from home. My parents loved music and we listened to music a lot. Although they both used to sing, no one in my family had any strong musical background. My sister played the cello and my parents bought a piano. From the moment I saw a black Riga piano at the age of 6, I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist.
Although my father urged me to have a conventional education, I wanted to push on and at the age of 9½ I won a national competition, after playing the piano only for 1½ years! I have been described as a child prodigy (though I strongly disagree this is the case with me – it was 1% talent, 99% hard work plus a sprinkle of luck!).
Around that time I was taken under the wing of Professor Dinolov, who as a pianist and musician was himself a product of different schools: the Russian Piano School under Yakov Zak; the French Pianistic school – he spent time in Paris Conservatoire studying with Yvonne Lefèbure; and at the same time, his own Professor (when he was a student at the National Academy in Sofia), Prof Andrey Stoyanov, went to Germany to study music. I was really lucky that he was the person to introduce me to different piano repertoire, composers and music, which included Debussy and impressionism. He took the time to explain (as I was only 10) and show me the art of the French impressionist painters, describing the influences and stylistics of impressionism in an approachable way.
I graduated from the National Music Academy in Sofia with a Master’s Degree in Music Theory (Music Analysis in particular); soon after, I became Assistant Professor of Piano Performance there. Alongside teaching I continued performing; many of these performances were recorded and transmitted on Bulgarian national radio and television.
I came to the UK in 1992 to a piano competition and met my British husband-to-be on the aeroplane (he was living and working in Saudi Arabia at the time). I am sure that most of my friends, colleagues and students know more about the story. We kept the relationship going and developing for 6 years, and in 1998 we got married in Sofia, then drove/moved to the UK, and we’ve lived here ever since…
What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?
For most professions there is a path to follow, a particular staircase to climb, even if there are challenges.
By contrast, a musician’s path is unique and individual, and that’s a challenge on its own! Right from the beginning a performer/musician’s life is full of hurdles and challenges, learning and mastering an instrument, having the right person to teach and guide them, and so on. Then the musician has to find the path in music that really inspires them and makes them happy.
To illustrate, I love performing, but I also enjoy my teaching work tremendously: it is challenging to find the right balance! But then all these challenges not only teach us life lessons, but make us stronger, and one comes out of it even more determined!
What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?
It can be lonely to play the piano: there are not so many opportunities for playing alongside others. These may include being part of or accompanying an orchestra or other group and playing some piano trios, quartets and so on. The piano is predominantly a solo instrument. That’s why ensemble playing, whether with another piano or an orchestra, gives me so much pleasure.
I was privileged in 1999 to be invited by the Trustees of the Claude Debussy House and Museum in St. Germain-en-Laye, Paris, to give a premiere performance of the composer’s complete Four Hands Works with my colleague, Prof. Emilia Mihaylova, on the composer’s birth date. Although this was such fun to do, there were plenty of challenges too – the complexity of the texture for each player and the limitation of space on one piano for two players requires very strict coordination, high professionalism and at the same time good friendship and understanding.
Debussy’s 4 Hand Integrale for Bulgarian TV: https://youtu.be/b3Z6DoWiQY0
When playing 2-piano ensembles with my piano duo partner, Venera Bojkova (with whom I’ve performed and recorded with numerous times), the challenges are completely different: one retains the ‘musical personality’ and ‘space’ of each instrument, but it’s a real challenge to make these two different instruments and two different people blend into one, at the same time. And somehow when I am performing with Venera, surprisingly we have always managed to achieve all this pretty much every time.
Talking of collaboration, here is an interesting story that might be of interest:
One of the first things I’ve heard about when I moved to this country and area (circa 1998) was the Portsmouth Music Festival. At the time it was held in the Menuhin Room on the top floor of the Portsmouth Library. And, of course, the main thing about it was the fabulous Steinway it used to have. Within months of moving to the UK, I got involved in the festival, firstly – accompanying, then entering some of my own students (many of them, I’m proud to say, winning prizes). Over the years the connection with the Portsmouth Festival grew and about 8 years ago I was invited to become one of their ‘official’ accompanists/pianists.
Very much connected with the Portsmouth Music Festival, almost in parallel, a special association with the Solent Symphony Orchestra developed. I’ve known many of the members of the orchestra from the numerous and various local performances I’ve done over the years, but the real collaboration started about 8 years ago when one of my very talented students, Monica Shi, won the ultimate Portsmouth Music Festival prize – the Concerto Prize (performing with the SSO).
Programmed along with Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto that Monica played was Stravinsky’s famous Firebird Suite. There is a big piano part in the orchestra and when I was asked if I can ‘help’, I thought to myself – of course, it makes sense as I’ll be there anyway, for Monica. Well, the rest is now history – that particular concert was nominated as Classical Event of the Year by the News (our local newspaper in Portsmouth), and it won that category!
The relationship with the SSO grew stronger and stronger, and lots of friendships were established too. Whenever there was a piano part I either sent some of my advanced South Downs College (or more recently Churcher’s College) students or played it myself. Years have passed by, and last September I played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G that was again nominated by the News as Classical Act of the Year 2019. Isn’t it wonderful how life and the music world works!
Here is a short video, a snippet from that performance, from my private video collection (unfortunately due to position of the camera and mainly acoustics, the quality wasn’t good enough to be published by my husband on my YouTube channel): https://youtu.be/jSmBGoTjKkU
Furthermore, you may have heard that the finalist of the keyboard section of Young Musician of the year 2020 is a local boy from the Isle of Wight, Thomas Luke. I’ve known him for the past 3 years from the Portsmouth Music Festival; he competed with some of my students and sometimes there were only a couple of points separating them. Thomas came to support my Ravel performance last September with the SSO, which was lovely.
As many of you know, Thomas won the concerto prize last year at the Portsmouth Music Festival. Sadly, his performance with SSO in March, was postponed but is rescheduled for the Autumn 2020.
To all of you, who are reading this, I would urge you (obviously, if lockdown is lifted): please do come and support Thomas as a soloist of the SSO – Thomas is a special boy that will be performing with a very special orchestra on 3 October. I very much hope to see many of you there!
Which works/performances are you most proud of?
Quite honestly, I am proud of most of my performances.
My Professor in Bulgaria encouraged me to perform many lesser-known pieces of music (sometimes written by famous composers). This love of re-discovering such kinds of music was taken to a completely different level when I came to this country.
One of the first venues I played locally was the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth. At that time they used to hold Sunday afternoon concerts. After I think my 1st or 2nd concert the then manager of the New Theatre Royal, Mr Gareth Vaughan said: “I see you play some very unusual repertoire… Do you know any Raff?” To which I explained that I’ve learnt all about the composer but have hardly heard a single note of his works as there were no recordings available. To which Gareth said: “Here is some Raff, his piano sonatas… tell me what you think.”
Well, I can admit that when I got back home, I started playing through the scores and I didn’t stop till I got to the end (some 3+ hours later). I was completely ‘lost’ inside this beautiful music, fabulous melodies, fantastic harmonies, plenty of pianistic challenges – I loved it! I picked up the phone to share my thoughts with Gareth. The rest is history – this was my 1st recording of music by long-lost composers. Notably, this was not only the 1st ever Raff piano music CD recording, but it was the 1st I made here, in the UK. This led to many more rediscovered pieces and composers, including Jewish romantic composers, scores that were hidden from the Nazis by the Jewish community in libraries and private collections around the world (such as the 1st Piano Concerto by Salomon Jadassohn).
Over the last 20 years, I’ve recorded 14 CDs of different composers and in many different countries!
I always try to include at least one of these long-forgotten pieces in my concerts (not just recording them for future generations, but performing these pieces live, at concerts is equally important). And of course, it’s nice to introduce people to this ‘new’ music, so I always like to chat with the audience about the context.
It has always been extremely satisfying after a concert (almost without exception) to have members of the audience come to me to tell me that not only did they enjoy the performance, but also that they really loved hearing and learning about unfamiliar music, about the composer and my (the performer’s own) ‘encounter’ with the music. Such a wonderful feel that in a way I continue to educate people even when I am on the stage, as a performer.
Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?
I identify strongly with Romantic composers, particularly from the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. But of course I very much enjoyed learning and recording the music of the young award-winning French composer, Corentin Boissier (only 25 years old), whose piano concertos I recorded last year in Lviv with The Ukrainian Festival Orchestra, conducted by Grammy-winning John McLaughlin Williams. Admittedly Corentin’s musical language is very much in a post-romantic or neo-romantic in style. This, when issued, will be my 15th CD.
Here is a short video 3 from Lviv, from my private video archives: https://youtu.be/3ujUooaLHa4
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I would say that all my concerts have been memorable in one way or other; whether I play for 2 or for 500 people, here in the UK, in Bulgaria or somewhere else in the world, the feeling is the same: I have the impression that all my concerts are memorable, at least for me (I hope for my audience too!).
Yes, of course there are the concerts that have been important milestones in my career, but there are also funny ones that I can tell anecdotes about!
On one occasion I was playing a Mendelssohn piece near Chichester when an alarm clock sounded from the organ loft. I presume that the organist had set it to remind himself to play at a certain time! On another occasion, a hammer broke (well, I discovered later on that the hammer was broken already and someone had simply glued it together!) during a concert performance and I had to quickly play this particular note (it just happened to be A above middle C) in another octave to make sure the melodic line stayed intact. And in another instance, there was a helicopter scheduled to land just outside the building I was playing a concert in, so I had to make sure I played the piece in exactly 4 minutes, finishing before the loud noise drowned out my playing!
What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?
As I mentioned above, for most professions there is a path to follow, a particular staircase to climb. By contrast, a musician’s path is unique and individual. The only common recipe to build a career as a musician is by applying 1% talent and 99% hard work, and with all of that sprinkled with luck (some get more sprinkle on top, some less, but one needs to be prepared to make the best of it!).
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
During this crisis, I am taking extra time to treasure my current moments with my husband and son: I feel lucky to have more time for them and feel lucky to be alive. If I had been asked this question earlier on, I would have described ambitions for new recordings and concerts. It’s strange how things have changed.
Valentina’s current positions include Lecturer/Tutor in Piano at Southampton University, Consultant for the Music Department of Havant & South Downs College, ‘Visiting Academic Staff’ for Churcher’s College, Petersfield.
For further info, please visit https://valentinaseferinova.com.
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