How do you choose a particular instrument? Why does someone opt for piano lessons, or for the accordion, the trumpet or the guitar? More often than not, it's a coincidence: there's an old pianino standing in the corner, or an uncle once played the cello. Or the local brass band urgently needs a cornet player. Or the music teacher recommends the violin because the pupil has a good ear.
Coincidence then – yet the choice of instrument couldn't be more important! It decides whether a modest talent turns into a great artist; whether the match between the artist and his instrument is still successful years later, or whether the musician is soon so frustrated that he decides to play football instead. And yet in the vast majority of cases, this important decision is taken by someone else.
Vivi Vassileva – Live
In the season 2022/23, Vivi Vassileva appears twice at the Elbphilharmonie – also as part of the new series »FAST LANE«.
A good decision :How Vivi Vassileva discovered percussion
But not in Vivi Vassileva's case: she took matters into her own hands at an early stage. When she was born in the Bavarian town of Hof in 1994, she found herself surrounded by music. Her father – originally from Bulgaria like her mother – played the violin in the Hof Symphony Orchestra, as did her three elder siblings. It goes without saying that the young Vivi took violin lessons with her father – and she wasn't bad at all. But in the end, it wasn't her instrument. When she was eight, the family went on holiday to the Black Sea, and Vivi heard people playing hand drums on the beach. She was so fascinated that she was soon sitting amidst the drummers every evening and playing herself. The die was cast: Vivi wanted to be a percussionist.
»Percussion never gets boring«
Her parents were not convinced at first, and the young girl had to beg them for ages until they finally agreed. Vassileva stuck to her guns, though, and in the end she began to take lessons with Claudio Estay, a percussionist from Chile who now plays in the Bavarian State Orchestra. Estay started by introducing his student to the vast world of South American percussion music, which Vassileva sees today as a major stroke of luck. In this way, she realised early on that every culture has its own, individual percussion tradition and its own unique instruments, and that awareness continues to supply the best argument for her choice. »Percussion never gets boring – you need to be able to play every instrument. Just because you've practised on the marimba, that doesn't mean you know how to play small drums. And hand drums in turn call for a different playing technique.«
»A percussionist plays five or six completely different instruments and techniques every day.«
In the choice of works as well, percussionists face totally different challenges from other instrumentalists: »Every year, 200 or 300 new percussion works are written. Most of the pieces in my personal repertoire, for example, were written by living composers and in close cooperation with percussionists. We are pioneers. We think differently; we explore all kinds of different sounds and combine them.«
As romantic as a violin
Vivi Vassileva's most recent training was in a master class taught by Martin Grubinger at the Salzburg Mozarteum. The paths that he once cleared in the classical jungle under some physical exertion are now her playground, which she continues to discover for herself with enthusiasm, loads of energy and above all with new ideas.
She is particularly keen to give more space to the softer, melodic sounds: »I want to show that percussion doesn't have to be loud and fast: on the marimba or the vibraphone you can play warm, melodious and romantic music just as well as on a violin.«
An interview with Vivi Vassileva
The right sound
Vivi plays Piazzolla and Bach, Scarlatti and Debussy as a duo with the guitarist Lucas Campara Diniz. Not on African and oriental drums like the djembe, darbuka or davul, of course, but on a marimbaphone or vibraphone. Martin Grubinger already showed how soft and sentimental these big instruments can sound in his own concert programme. But Vassileva places music in the limelight that generally serves as an encore with Grubinger. She stems from a violin family, after all, where sweeping melodies and the Romantic repertoire are a given. Even though her father didn't manage to teach her to play the violin, he did help her evolve a very good feeling for the right sound.
And Vassileva finds this right sound even on dented plastic bottles. Last year she gave the first performance of Gregor A. Mayrhofer's »Recycling Concerto«: the composer and the percussionist sat together for hours beforehand, discussing which kinds of refuse might produce the best sound: wine corks, the lids of yogurt cartons, coffee capsules? The political message behind the score is obvious: the ever-growing mountains of rubbish that modern civilisation produces are the central theme.
Vivi Vassileva is keen to integrate such non-musical issues into her artistic work, and she doesn't shy away from the resulting debate. And that's not all: in her opinion, it's also important to ensure that classical music stays alive and in touch with current events. Let's hope that she manages to act as a role model for many young girls (and boys as well) who have enough time to choose their instrument – as well as understanding parents and a mind of their own.
Text: Renske Steen; Stand: 06.09.2022
English translation: Clive Williams
»Fast Lane« is supported by Porsche.