SEEN LIVE: VASKO VASSILEV – Concert in Sofia (29/02/2016)

Review by: Nina A

It is interesting and perhaps very cool that in the year 2016 a classical violinist (a performing classical violinist, not just a classically trained one) can be considered as something of a rock star. Sure, the cult status of the first Concert Master of the Royal Opera House (joined in 1993) helps and a season as a judge on the Bulgarian X factor has made Vasko Vassilev a bit more well-known to the general public in his native country (which he now, obviously, rarely visits) but still – a large sports arena, the largest indoors venue in Sofia – was filled to the very brim of its capacity on the night of February 2016 and the expectation of something special and truly unique is, well, if not tangible, then at least quite apparent.
Vasko Vasilev has risen to fame internationally not quite by chance – he is an excellent musician. Talent and passion go without saying, of course, and we do love to hear him play but I am sure the audience was expecting not only some virtuoso playing but also an interesting production and one suitable in scale and ambition for the big sporting venue Arena Armeec.
Which is, broadly speaking, what we got.
The performance opened on a grand scale indeed – an epic reworking of the opera Turandot of the variation “Turandot in 15 minutes” complete with a brief but dramatically read synopsis courtesy to Pamela Nicholson (dressed for this occasion as a true oriental princess) and drums and electric guitars. The delightful and intelligent and somewhat rocking arrangements suited the epic story of prince Calaf and the unattainable princess Turandot.
Next up came what Vasko had promised and had come to do – play Paganini in front of 12 000 people in Sofia. The famously difficult solo work for violin Caprice No 24 by Paganini showcased the virtuosity of his playing and also served as the most intimate moment of the whole evening.
Two more operas Madama Butterfly and Carmen got the same concise reworking treatment, which I was later informed was a new project for Vasko Vassilev and his crew – introducing Japanese people to Opera in an engaging way, because this artform is apparently not popular there.
The highlight solo arias of each opera were, of course, reserved for Vasko’s violin, while the choir competently provided some of the more memorable lyrical moments and served to establish the theatricality and sense of drama that are so important for the operatic artform.
The rest of the evening saw a variety of performances and a host of guests – from boogie woogie pianist Keito Saito to the musicians from Chambao, who performed some of Paco de Lucía’s pieces together with Vasko. Iana Salenko (from StaatsBallett Berlin) and Steven McRae (from the Royal Ballet) provided dance interpretation to Libertango, Le Cygne (from The Carnival of the Animals) and the now signature Czárdás collaboration.
Perhaps more remarkable than the performances themselves was, however, the ecstatic reception by the public. The applause rivaled the one you’d expect at a high profile rock concert and the audience clearly hung on every note and every word that Vasko spoke between set numbers. It is commendable that he managed to put together such a production for the audience of his native country, and it is significant not only because we have some sort of a duty to keep the general public interested in the “dying inaccessible art of classical music and opera” but because talent, a great vision and some daring can keep an audience invested and perhaps even produce a cathartic effect by the end of the evening, and when music does that, I am all up for that.