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  • Angel Kotev: Beauty in music as a professional credo

    Kristina Dencheva
    17 August, 2022

    A composer with a long and successful career, Angel Kotev composes in a wide range of genres: symphonic, vocal, chamber, film, children's and electronic-acoustic music. Among his symphonic works, Rhapsody No. 1 "Bulgarian Rhapsody" commissioned by the conductor Young Ho Pak for the California Youth Symphony in the USA. A special and beautiful aspect of Kotev's work is ballet music. The ballet "The Barrier" based on the novel by Pavel Vezhinov was added by Margarita Arnaudova and Ballet Studio "Arabesque" in 1983 and is recognized as the first Bulgarian ballet on a contemporary theme. In 2007, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of "Arabesque", the composer wrote "The Insight of the Stone" based on a plot based on the sculpture park of Gustav Vigeland in Oslo, Norway. The premiere of the ballet took place in 2008 with the choreography of Boryana Sechanova and Olesya Pantikina. Among the new directions he takes with Angel Kotev's work is chamber music for brass ensembles. This is the occasion to invite him to our "Brass Stories" at the peak of summer. As well as a story about the trumpet, American jazz and the parallel worlds in which composers live...

    How did the trumpet settle so deep in your heart?
    I have a special santiment for the trumpet - for this instrument, for this sonority, for the whole group of brass. My father Petar Kotev was a trumpet player. He belonged to a generation of lovers filled with a great love for music in general. He also played folk music, and it was extremely successful - something that remained a mystery to me, the only genre which I never tried. At that time, jazz, which was created far across the ocean, was very fashionable. I was a child (I was born in 1951), I knew many of my father's friends and colleagues who turned to this very different genre with particular enthusiasm and desire. He presented us with another harmony, another worldview, other feelings and sensations. And perhaps from there I was particularly influenced in my earlier period of development as a pianist and later as a composer.

    My father played magnificently. Back then there was a huge name in this style: Harry James, who is an unearthly beauty when it comes to interpretations. Such nuances one can be glad to hear whilst listening to this instrument in the hands of James. And the trumpet is an instrument that most people define as more limited in possibilities in the orchestra or soloing, not virtuosic enough. Which is clearly not the case.

    I grew up around a lot of musicians, a quieter, maybe more romantic life. My father's colleagues often gathered at home. And every gathering turned into a little concert. And music was played, and music was talked about, and thoughts and knowledge were exchanged, even regarding harmony and form. My father was one of the most famous musicians of the time. A charming, intelligent man who graduated in finance, but from a young age he was involved in music as an amateur like most musicians of the time after the Second World War. He played the trumpet even as a soldier. In much later years, when it became difficult for him to play for purely physiological reasons - you know, the trumpet, and all wind instruments have their exacting demands - he reoriented himself first to the piano, and then he also began to work as an accordionist. This was in the last 20-25 years of his life. He was in love with music and so was I. And there was no profession other than purely instrumental playing that was so close to his understanding, to his feeling for music. Of course, he continued to have many contacts with pianists and other musicians for the rest of his life. And I would say that he went away satisfied and happy that the music stayed not only until the last moment with him, but also because I took the same path. Of course, and for many other things...

    Do you have his trumpet saved or maybe old records?
    No, I don't have it. But I will tell you something interesting. At one point, the portrait of Harry James appeared at home, to whom my father took the liberty of writing in those years. Corresponding with someone in the US was an extreme risk. But as a reply from across the ocean he received a framed autographed photograph of Harry James with his Bach trumpet. It was an extreme pride for my father, an achievement and a joy from which - thank God - he did not suffer. My mother was not a musician, but she never missed a show at the Operetta. My parents had many friends from Sofia National Opera and Ballet and State Operetta - they were part of the constant presence at home.

    Harry James - Concerto for trumpet (1942)

    And how did your path in music begin?
    I would say that my path has been quite strange. I had an "appetite" for other things. I was bursting with energy and envisioned life as an athlete rather than a musician. I played football in CSKA. Sports cultivate very serious qualities that are useful for music: ambition, enthusiasm for the things you love, for the things you aspire to. This is some kind of a bet to win. Playing sports helps in this way later in life no matter what you do. This is my personal opinion and experience.

    I started my piano lessons relatively late. I was admitted to the Music School with a clarinet, I played a nice state clarinet. After I graduated I returned it and that was it with this instrument. I was accepted at the Conservatory (nowadays National Music Academy "Prof. Pancho Vladigerov") with piano and after two years - composition with Prof. Alexander Raichev. Let's mention it right this year, when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this genius man. It was a great chance for me to be his student. I have learned a number of things from him as a professional. But in the first place, I would put the experience I gained in my contact with him as purely human qualities, as an attitude towards the people around him, towards the world around him. And as the quintessence of all this: his positive character, which is a guarantee of victory in every aspect. Positive thinking, in my opinion and in my humble experience, helps to realize any harder, more complex, higher goals.

    Tell us more about Prof. Raichev as your teacher...
    He created extremely powerful and impactful music - perhaps the most important trait that music should possess: the power of impact. This is largely due to the temperament inherent in each person. As Bulgarians - thank God - we are full of temperament. Something crucial for being a successful, quality composer. And the result is that we have a long line of outstanding composers - from the First, Second, Third and I don't know what is the generation now. We may not be recognized as much as we need on a global level, but that's probably because, as a friend used to say, "A small pot, a small flower". I may agree about the pot, but not about the flower. It may not be big, but it is very beautiful, very fragrant, extremely affecting as an emotion, which is enough. In order to be successful, you must have luck in addition to all the qualities. Things depend on luck and creative contacts.

    What you are doing with this program of work in the Brass Perspectives Association and with the Brass Stories project is wonderful and very useful. I wish you luck and success, both you as performers and teachers, and us as composers.

    The composer's profession is perhaps among the most special and beautiful in the world.
    Yes. But it also has its own special requirements, which are not always correctly assessed by the people around us. Conditions (of work) are an extremely important thing. You can't count on cherries to sprout and grow in the Gobi desert or somewhere in the Sahara, from which you can expect a harvest. It's hard, isn't it? And we live in a difficult time, because in order to realize the music as a final product, firstly, the road is very long, secondly, it requires a set of exceptional facts. Silence, peace, security, what not, just to sit down and start writing. We are not yet talking about the quality of the creation. To have this quality, you must have absorbed a huge amount of information from the already established traditions in our art. That alone is a difficult enough requirement to begin with. But it is clear that we can overcome many problems to reach the realization of this difficult but very beautiful profession. And I hope to possess at least a small part of the remarkable qualities that our ancestors had, and to feel that I am part of this huge family - beautiful, rich in emotions and feelings. The family of music...

    What you say sounds very enchanting - like in an Arabic fairy tale.
    I recently had the opportunity to work with Prof. Atanas Karafezliev, and then I mentioned that words also have no less power, but it is another, no less serious profession. And I feel stronger in front of the music sheet, where I would like to write the correct dots and dashes.

    Let's talk about your symphonic music and the place of brass in it.
    Brass is an integral part of the symphony orchestra. It enables the composer to show different nuances especially in the orchestration process, to take advantage of the very rich emotional palette that the brass can create. The group of brass instruments is indispensable because it can realize different feelings, different views, different atmosphere. At a certain earlier period in my life, I thought that the brass was extremely strong in dramatic moments, in heroic moments. But it turned out that I was not completely right. And later I discovered for myself that with copper winds an infinite amount of feelings and emotions can be created far from the dramatic and conveyed in a magnificent way. Especially in symphonic music, with its irreplaceable qualities, the brass is the foundation of the entire structure, it supports the foundation of the entire orchestra, and in solo performances it can demonstrate all kinds of surprising qualities for the composer and the audience.

    Angel Kotev "Bulgarian Rhapsody" - California Youth Symphony Orchestra, conductor Young Ho Pak, 1997

    At one point I felt a kind of emptiness that I had not written chamber music for brass instruments. But we have time for everything, right? This is a challenge and a chance to meet exceptional musicians, professionals. And maybe that's the main reason I sat down and wrote my brand new Brass Trio. For me, this is the way to thank exceptional colleagues and to realize music that sets new tasks for me. It wasn't easy as in anything that comes first - in the case of chamber brass. And I am very satisfied. The end result is professional - a magnificent performance with soul. This satisfaction is also a source of ideas for future chamber works, perhaps for a more extended chamber composition. Because I personally missed the French horn in this trio of trumpet, trombone and tuba. To be alive and well, the time is ahead of us. Maybe for a quintet...

    There is a very characteristic specificity in writing music for brass that I faced and I think I managed, but it was not easy. I have written a lot for the flute, it was much easier for me. In fact, I have written for almost all wind instruments, if we go by the score - from piccolo to flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon - even now a trio with bassoon is due to premiere on "New Bulgarian Music" in the fall.

    Angel Kotev - Vocalise for trumpet and piano, Peter Makedonski (trumpet), Diana Boteva (piano)

    And how did you start writing "from top to bottom in the order of the score" for wind instruments?
    I remember that once in a conversation with Prof. Dimitar Tapkov - a composer I respect very much and an extremely intelligent person - he proudly remarked: I have written something for all instruments! And I said to myself: Why don't I do this too? But there is another thing: with us, perhaps because we are a southern country, friendly relations are very important. When professionalism, talent of a musician - performer is added to them, what could be better than that? Because we, the composers, realize ourselves through the performers. Prose, but a fact. You give a gift to the performer, and he returns the gift maybe x 2 with his performance. Successful implementation of both parties in a joint product. This is exactly the case not only with my works for flute, oboe or clarinet. This is also the case with the Brass Trio performed by Stoyan Stoyanov (trumpet), Atanas Karafezliev (trombone) - a musician I have admired for years - and Nikolay Temniskov (tuba), who for me is the best tuba player in Bulgaria now. Remarkable. The trumpet player, whom I did not know personally until that moment, in the process of our joint work showed qualities that I did not suspect. At first it seemed a little reserved, but it started to play the way I wanted it to. And at the end, during the recording process, he also showed his emotionality. And this is extremely important to me, because in this trio the trumpet is the first violin, and if he is restrained, distant, does not reveal the whole palette of his qualities, then the final result would drastically diverge from the intentions and ideas of the composer and would not be so impressive.

    Emotion is our main weapon to influence the listener, the most important weapon. I remember many years ago I was present at Studio 1 of the Bulgarian National Radio at a recording by Alexis Weissenberg. And while he was recording an excerpt, he got a few tones wrong. He stopped and went to hear what had happened. The sound engineer tried to draw his attention to the mistake. And Weissenberg looked at the team, smiled and said: "It doesn't matter at all." The important thing is that I play with mood and emotion.” And he was very right. These are small lessons from great people, which - thank God - we learn in every subsequent contact with them.

    I strive to always have beauty in the music I create. Some strive (and succeed) to present theoretical concepts through their music. It is very important to have a concept. I think Stravinsky said that only genius composers can create concepts. It is not an easy task, it is very difficult and extremely important. But for me music has to be mostly beautiful. No matter what feelings it expresses, the beauty must be within - even in the sadness, in the drama, in the tragedy. This is my view, my understanding, the creed to which I adhere all my life...

    Translation in English: Tsvetelina V. Georgieva
    The article is available in Bulgarian and in Dutch
    Translation in Dutch: Ruben Vermeulen

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