interview with Katia Popov: on Hollywood, movie music and Wilhelmj's 1691 Pietro Guarneri

December 6, 2011, 5:41 PM · Living in Los Angeles, I find myself surrounded by artists and musicians who have carved out careers in music that seem the stuff of fairy tales. Certainly violinist Katia Popov fits that description.

Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, she has let nothing stop her career in music, and by now she is a top studio musician who has played in more than 600 motion picture scores and records. She is also concertmaster of the Glendale Pops Orchestra (which performs this Friday, HolidayPop! with David Benoit) as well as a longtime member of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, where she performs as concertmaster. She is founder and first violinist of the California String Quartet and plays in numerous orchestras in the Los Angeles area.

Last month we talked about the path that led her to Los Angeles, about what makes Hollywood special and about why she loves the music of the movies.

Laurie: Tell me how long you've been playing the violin; when did you start, and why did you want to play the violin in the first place?

Katia: I wanted to play the violin because my father is a musician. When my mother worked, he would take me to rehearsals and recordings and tell me to be really quiet. I was so scared that I would make a noise! I sat through all of those, as quiet as a mouse. I always looked at the violins in the front of the orchestra -- they looked so poised and sounded so beautiful, they made the most beautiful melodies. I just fell in love with the violin.

Katia Popov

Laurie: What did your father play?

Katia: My father played the oboe; he was the principal of the Radio Orchestra in Sofia, (Bulgaria), where I'm from. He made music a daily routine for me, whether we went to a concert, rehearsal, or I watched his recordings or his students -- there was always music in the house. I was surrounded by that. My mom is not a musician, but she had a beautiful voice and she always sang. So music was always around me, and I loved it. It was just meant to be.

I was three when I told my dad that I wanted a little violin, but he didn't think that I would be serious at such a young age. So I took some sticks and pretended they were a violin and a bow -- I did that all the time until they got me a real violin. I started at four and a half -- still pretty young. They took me to solfeggio lessons and violin lessons. Everything in the solfeggio that we had to do was so natural for me. My parents realized that this is really what I was going to do -- because it came very easily to me.

It was really fun in the beginning, until I had to switch schools. I started at this academy for gifted kids; then when I was in first grade, I had to go to a bigger school, the Sofia Music Academy. I had to switch teachers, and the teacher there was much more serious -- and it was a man! Before, I'd had a woman teacher who I loved, I was so used to her. I was so scared about having a man teacher, I would just shake. This professor was actually the dean of the music school, who was going to teach me. He taught all of the grown-up kids, but since I was already so advanced, he took me. I insisted that my parents were always in the room, until I got used to him. Of course, I was absolutely fine -- I befriended him and he was a lovely man, really, really nice. He actually became like a part of my family. He would invite my family and me to dinners and there were get-togethers at his house with his students and listening to a lot of music. One of the most important things that I learned from him was how to phrase like an opera singer. He would say, 'Don't just look at the music and how the melody goes, but think where you would breathe if you were an opera singer, and that's how the phrase should go.' That stuck with me forever: how you should phrase music in the most natural way.

Laurie: So what brought you to Los Angeles?

Katia: I was graduating from the Bulgarian State Conservatory of Music in Sofia, and there was an audition for concertmaster of the European Symphony Orchestra in Paris. It was a young orchestra, very vibrant, comprised of musicians from all over Europe. They were looking for a concertmaster, so they went to every capital in Europe to audition people for the orchestra, and to find a concertmaster. Naturally they came to Sofia, to the music academy. I wanted to audition, but I was nine months pregnant. I was just finishing the conservatory, and my professor said, there's no way that you will go and embarrass our violin school -- he forbade me to go! My husband said, 'Of course you're going! You're the best violinist in the academy, you should go! It doesn't matter.'

So I went for the audition, and the day of the audition, my professor was standing in front of the door, guarding the door! He didn't want to let me in!

Laurie: Because you were pregnant?!

Katia: He thought I would not be 100 percent because my fingers were a little swollen from the pregnancy. He just thought I wouldn't represent the Bulgarian School of Violin as he would like it.

I said, 'You're moving out of those doors, I'm going in!' And so of course, he did, and the rest is history. I won, and was invited to become the concertmaster of the European Symphony Orchestra. We toured all over Europe and recorded, and played in front of all the prime ministers of the European Union and in front of the King and queen of Spain and performed at the most beautiful and famous concert halls in Europe, like Gewandhouse, Musikverein, Stats Opera in Wiena - it was a lot of fun. I met some incredible musicians and made so many friends. Music is the easiest way to reach people's hearts and make friendships. It was a great time of my life and career.

At the same time, I continued my studies at the Paris Conservatory. I always have felt that there is so much more to learn. I was looking for knowledge and guidance, and as much as I could get. So I studied at the Paris Conservatory with Nell Goutkovsky, one of the most distinguished violinist and professors in France.

My dream though was to come to the United States. It all started with the movies and the great bands and great recordings I had of the Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic and the great sound of the saxophone theme in the movie "Tootsie"...go figure.

At the time we were in Paris, we were political refugees, and we were applying for political asylum in the States. The timing was perfect. The foundation that helped us apply for asylum actually told us where we had to go first for a few months, so we had to go to Phoenix. From Phoenix I started networking, and I found out that there was an audition coming up in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra whose Music Director at the time was Iona Brown -- it was a week away! So I called, and the manager of the orchestra said the deadline has passed, you can't come. I said, 'I have to come! You don't understand! I studied with Iona! I have to come, I have to play with her!' I saw Iona Brown when she toured in Bulgaria, when I was a student, and I just fell in love with her playing. She was an incredibly talented musician. The management finally agreed -- okay, come and play. So I drove overnight. I was already playing with the Phoenix Symphony, and I drove after the concert in Phoenix to LA to audition there. It was a very surreal feeling. It was held in downtown LA, and of course I was half-lost on the way there, because there are at least 15 downtowns on the 10 freeway from Phoenix until you get to downtown LA. In the desert, between Phoenix to LA, there was a dust storm, and it was the most surreal thing, you couldn't see anything going through it. It was quite a drive! Finally we arrived in downtown LA, and there were homeless everywhere -- in the '90s, it was really bad. They were making fires in these big barrels all around the theatre where I was supposed to audition.

So I auditioned, and I got the job, and we came to LA. That's how we started.

Then, of course, I wanted to find the best professor in town and continue my studies -- I wanted to do my doctorate degree. So I found out that Alexander Treger (then Concertmaster of the L.A. Philharmonic) was teaching at UCLA and I thought that this would be a really good transition. Since he was also an assistant of Oistrakh (her other teachers also were Oistrakh protégés), it wouldn't be such a big jolt for me...

Laurie: You don't want someone who's going to tell you, you have to completely change everything you're doing.

Katia: Exactly. I just wanted some guidance and further refinement of my craft, so Mr. Treger's expertise and experience was perfect for that, and we of course became best friends. My studies with him were just phenomenal, I was so happy that I found him and he, I think, made me what I am today. He has such broad spectrum of knowledge of the violin and the performing practices of different composers, extraordinary vision about different sound projection and interpretation, vibrato and intonation, I was so happy to learn all that!! There were a lot of people who actually, talking about that, who helped me develop my playing and who influenced and shaped me as a violinist, aside from all the recordings and my favorite violinists, Oistrakh, Perlman, Spivakov, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Schering and Gidon Kramer. Two of them are actually right here in Los Angeles. Bruce Dukov is one of them, and the other one is Endre Granat. Both of them are phenomenal concertmasters and very different in their approach, coming from a very different background and a slightly different generation. I'm eternally grateful to them for what they have -- not knowingly -- taught me.

Laurie: What kinds of things have they taught you?

Katia: They taught me how to be the best concertmaster that you can be, all these little things that you could never ever learn from anywhere else, I learned just sitting next to them. It was like mini-master classes every day I would go to work. I feel so lucky that I was able to witness all of that firsthand. I felt very fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time and meet these two uber-talented people and become really good friends with them and witness their craft and their incredible musicianship.

Laurie: What's different about the craft of being a concertmaster than being a section player or soloist?

Katia: Everything is different, it's a different job, when you sit in the back and when you sit in the front. The pressure, the stress (all of a sudden it's hot in the room!), the excitement -- everything is different. You're responsible for everything: communicating with the conductor, communicating what he demands from the section and the orchestra; it's something that you learn from, and I have found that it's a very delicate job.

Laurie: The joke is that the person sitting in the front is the one with the arrows sticking out of their back!

Katia: When I sit concertmaster, I try to be courteous, firm and helpful. You have to lead in an appropriate way, a way that is understood by everybody. You have to help the section sound the best that they can sound. Actually, a concertmaster can change the sound of a section, I've seen different concertmasters do that. The sound that you project, the sound that you show by your body movement, the sound that comes out of your fiddle when you're showing how it's supposed to be played -- it changes everything. It translates to everybody: how they will project, what kind of sound they will create...That's really important to me.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and some of your memorable experiences playing there.

Katia: I love the Hollywood Bowl; the moment I saw it, I felt, I have arrived. This is my kind of place to make music! There's just something in the air, when you can feel the audience, when you can feel the energy of the night. The place itself, for me, is so -- spiritual is not the word, but it has so much presence because of the many great artists who have performed there. When you walk on that stage, you feel it. I feel all of them being there, and that becomes a part of me and my performance. I think that this is what the audience also is feeling: that accumulation of great artists and performances, which makes the Hollywood Bowl something really phenomenal. It's a treasure in Los Angeles. I feel so lucky that we have something like that in our musical world.

Laurie: How did you wind up playing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra?

Katia: You know, it was a complete accident. I was still in school when the orchestra started, so I didn't know a lot of the people who started the orchestra, including Bruce (Dukov) or the manager of the orchestra at the time. One of my friends who was already playing in the orchestra was talking to me at dinner, and he said, 'I don't like playing outside, it's not for me.' He wanted to get out of (playing) one of the concerts, and the manager told him, 'You have to find me a substitute right away!' So my friend asked, 'Do you want to do it?' Yes, I want to do it, of course! So he called the manager and said, my friend Katia is going to come in and play. That was how it started!

So apparently I made a good impression, and I started working with them all the time. We went on tours to Japan, which was really incredible, and we went to Brazil. People everywhere greeted us as superstars -- because we were coming from Hollywood. They were waiting for the bus to arrive at the concert hall -- lining up streets so they could greet us. I've never seen anything like it! We were playing the Hollywood movie music, which they associated with the biggest stars in the world, and we were the closest thing that they could touch to this movies stars. They were literally kissing our hands. So we really had a great time, very special time. We made many friends and once again proved that music is the best ambassador to the world.

Laurie: Do you like movie music?

Katia: I love movie music, absolutely love it.

Laurie: What do you like about it?

Katia: First, I love to see how the movie comes alive onscreen when the music is performed -- it just completely changes everything. Making a movie is just an incredible creative process, with so many people involved -- and the final cherry on top is the music. It can change a scene in so many different ways -- it can make it really sad, or very cheery, or scary, or very dramatic. That's why I always admire directors who are right there for the recording process, right next to the composer, guiding them.

Laurie: What are those sessions like? I've done only one, and it wasn't anything major. Is the movie ever going on in the background?

Katia: Yes, it's always going on. But we can't look while we're recording!

Laurie: I was going to say, it must be like being in the pit orchestra or something, where you never once see the Nutcracker!

Katia: We used to have a composer, Shirley Walker, and heaven forbid, if she saw you watching the screen! You would be fired, right there on the spot! She was a firecracker -- very talented, very funny. She passed away since then. But yes, you're not supposed to look; you look after the recording is done.

Laurie: Do they screen it for you, after the recording is done?

Katia: While they are listening, you can look, and then yes, we're always invited to the screening,

Laurie: What are some of the ones that you remember best, or enjoyed most? Of the 600 + that you've done!

Katia: Oh my goodness! Of course Titanic (scored by James Horner) would be one of the most memorable, it's a great score.

A lot of the movies that have to do with water really made an impression on me -- I think I'm afraid of water, that's why! For example, The Perfect Storm. I was so scared of this big wave, when we were recording that! Afterwards I was watching the screen, and I turned white. It was just so scary, and moving -- the music made it even more scary!

My daughter will say, 'Mom, did you do this music? It was so scary!' She loves scary movies, so they go to these flicks that are really scary, and they'll say, 'This music, how did you do it? You must have been so scared when you were playing it!'

Of course I have many memorable moments recording in Hollywood - of course having John Williams conduct his scores and Spielberg always standing right there filming every note we record, it makes me feel so special, being able to be there. And recording with James Newton Howard, or Alan Silvestri, or David Newman and the funny-as-hell Randy Newman throwing his baton in the air (losing the producer's time) and saying -- $50 Or just being concertmaster for Paul McCartney for his latest record...or playing a great concert with the quartet...what more can I want? I love that you can be so versatile in this town.

Laurie: I had a conversation with Bruce Dukov a few years ago, and he talked about how not all the movies are being scored in LA. How would you say that scene is going these days?

Katia: Well of course, work is going everywhere, with the globalization of the world. But Hollywood will always be Hollywood. You can always tell when a score was recorded here because it just sounds so much better.

Laurie: What do you think makes it better when it's recorded in Hollywood?

Katia: People like the actors came to Hollywood be to part of this very special process of making movies, and the musicians are are attracted to the same process. If you just take the violins in our recording orchestra, they are all concertmasters. They're all incredible, talented musicians. Where can you find an orchestra like that, in the world? You cannot! Because every orchestra is made of two concertmasters and then as you go back, they're just regular musicians. Here we have a section of principals, soloists and concertmasters.

Laurie: What kind of skills do you need when you're doing a recording session?

Katia: Well first of all, you have to be able to read any kind of music that is put in front of you, in a split second. Because you just look at it -- you don't rehearse it -- and record. Whether it's whole notes, or whether there are sixteen 32nd-notes going up and down with sixteen eighth rests written in the middle, you have to be able to play it, the first time. If you can't, you don't have a chance. This business will spit you out if you're not the best. It's natural selection, and that's why what we have here is unique to the entire world. Composers come from all over the world and they say, 'You guys are phenomenal, how is that possible that you can read this so well - from the first read?' Nobody can do that, they're just stunned. The good thing is now we have amazing contracts that allow young composers on a very low budget to do a phenomenal score.

Laurie: Who offers such contracts?

Katia: The Recording Musicians Association, the RMA. We all are members of the AFM (American Federation of Musicians).

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your violin.

Katia: The violin was given to me by a foundation, when I was a concertmaster in Paris. It's a very special fiddle; it was owned by a famous German violinist, August Wilhelmj. Before he passed away in the early 1900s, in London, he took it to Hill, who made a certificate for the violin. The original certificate describes what the violin looks like: the color, the purfling and those things. But it also describes the sound of the violin, which is very unusual in a certificate for a violin. It says that the sound is unmistakable, that you cannot duplicate that sound. It's very deep, velvety, sonorous, huge and projecting. It's very beautifully written, how they describe the sound. He played on this fiddle, and he didn't play on the Strad that he had, because he liked this one better. It's a Pietro Guarneri of Mantua from 1691.

He took it on his tours everywhere: all over Europe -- and the Sultan of Turkey invited him to Istanbul to play in front of his harem. He was the only non-castrated man ever invited in the harem! He took this fiddle there, on the Orient Express. So this fiddle passed through Bulgaria back then, to go to Istanbul. Maybe there are many other stories about the violin that I don't know, but this was one of the stories that I found out about. It's pretty amazing. This fiddle was one of my teachers'. When I got it and I made the first sound with it, I had tears in my eyes - I heard the sound of Willhelmj. It was still there. It was so difficult for me to learn to play on this instrument. It was like a wild horse. But now we are best friends and it trusts me like I trust it. I think we are a good team.


December 7, 2011 at 05:04 AM · Wow, Laurie, you get the greatest interviews! And she's beautiful, to boot! (Anyone who plays fiddle beautifully is beautiful of course...)

I know two Bulgarians. Only two, but I will generalize them: warm, wonderful engaging talented interesting conversational. Seems to fit!

December 7, 2011 at 05:28 PM · Wow, is right Laurie!She is beautiful!!!What a fascinating article...I loved the part where she says "you have to be able to read and kind of music that is put in front of you, in a split second". I am in awe :)

December 10, 2011 at 09:48 PM · Very nice interview! What a privledge to play such a violin and to have made such accomplishments!

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