interview with Bella Hristova: Bella Unaccompanied

June 27, 2013, 9:05 PM · Good thing she's recording this, because it's one highly technical program, I thought, reading the jacket of Bella Hristova's new CD, Bella Unaccompanied.

What a list: The Red Violin Caprices (five of them) by John Corigliano; "Arches," a five-movement solo violin work by contemporary composer Kevin Puts; three of Astor Piazzolla's Tango Etudes, Milstein's "Paganiniana Variations"; and the entire D minor Partita by Bach, which, of course, includes the epic Chaconne at the end. (Emotionally speaking, I'd argue that performing the Chaconne is a rather exhausting act in itself.)

Also, every single piece in this line-up is for solo violin -- completely unaccompanied. One would really have to be able to hold an audience in thrall to pull this off. Then I realized, she actually did play all this in a live performance, after she recorded it!

Bella Hristova
Photo credit: Steve Riskind

Well, it's not so surprising. At 27, Bella Hristova has an impressive list of achievements: just last month she received a $25,000 Avery Fisher Career Grant; she was First Prize Winner in the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions; First Prize at the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition in New Zealand and a Laureate of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

Perhaps more importantly, she plays so beautifully. A few weeks ago I spoke to her over the phone, and we talked about how a solo violinist practices for a highly technical program, the beauty of Bach and Bartok, and much more.

Laurie: This solo program that you've recorded and also that you have played in recital -- I'd be exhausted after the first Caprice, probably. Tell me a little bit about how you stay in shape for playing all these very technical things. In other words, how do you practice?

Bella: I do scales and arpeggios every day that I practice, though I do take days off. I do them from the Galamian book: four-octave scales, all the three octave arpeggios, starting from G going to G. (Galamian's sequence takes one through some nine sets of arpeggios per key, based on various chords) It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to do all the scales and arpeggios. But the reason I like the Galamian arpeggios so much is because they are not just the typical arpeggios. They force you do know the relationship between your fingers really well: whether you have to stretch a half-step here, or a whole step there, and all of those things with the string crossings. That helps tremendously, with anything, but especially with a challenging technical program. I've also done some Dounis exercises, where you shift in thirds or fourths or sixths.

I also do a lot of slow practice. I think maybe 70 percent of my practice is slow practice, to get the muscle memory and to get to know the distances between the notes, especially in fast passages, so that when I do get it up to tempo and I do play it fast, I really don't have to think about the notes.

I actually had an amazing thing happen to me in concert: I had a memory slip, but my fingers kept going. My brain turned off, and I thought, 'Oh no, where am I!?' But my fingers kept going. It was in a really fast passage, in the Saint Saens D minor sonata, in the last movement. It all happened over maybe two seconds -- but it was amazing!

Laurie: You must have been so tremendously well-prepared! How long do you practice, typically?

Bella: I've always tried to do the most efficient practice that I can because I don't -- how to say this -- I don't love practicing!

Laurie: I don't think anyone does.

Bella: But I really try to stay focused -- not practicing with the T.V., not practicing and spacing out, but really paying attention to what you're doing. It really depends on the repertoire that I'm playing, but I would say I practice between two and four hours a day, probably around three. And I think I've always practiced about that much. When I was at Curtis, there's a lot of playing. So some days I would be playing maybe 12 hours a day, but I might not get any time to actually practice.

Laurie: Have you ever had to deal with injury, and how do you prevent that?

Bella: When I was at Curtis, I had some tendinitis problems, and I think it came from not warming up properly. I think that stretching before you start playing and after is very important, and then doing slow scales. I'm a scales convert -- I used to not do scales. Now, I feel like I can't play if I don't do my scales; I mean, we're athletes! People don't run a sprint or a marathon, without being warmed up. Even after my scales, I don't feel quite ready to play a concerto; I start with the slow practice and then I slowly work it up. I just want my muscles to be nice and warm.

I have a theory as to why violinists need to warm up more than, say, pianists. It always amazes me how pianists don't usually have a piano backstage, and then they go out and play. I think we need to warm up more because we have to balance a very thin string right in the middle of our finger. It's a much finer set of muscles that we use for that.

Laurie: When you think about it, the target practice there is pretty amazing.

Bella: Exactly, it's a target, and it's so precise.

Laurie: It's so precise, and at the same time, it's not even fixed in space. It's on our shoulder, with our heart beating, with our hands moving. It's kind of a crazy instrument, isn't it?

Bella: Our hand is in a very unnatural position.

Laurie: Our hands and our heads…it's crazy. On a different topic, I've really been enjoying your CD. Aren't there a lot of permutations of the Red Violin music? How did you come upon the Caprices?

Bella: Yes, there's a Red Violin Chaccone, which is played with orchestra in the movie. The Red Violin Caprices also appeared in the movie, as solo works. And now there's also The Red Violin Concerto, which is the longer version of the Chaccone, also with orchestra.

Laurie: I like these quite a lot, the solo Caprices.

Bella: I love them! They're more varied, and very effective.

Laurie: Did you ever talk to John Corigliano?

Bella: I have met him, and I gave him a copy of my CD, and I received the sweetest e-mail back from him; he was very complimentary about my playing. It was really, really touching.

Laurie: How did you find the "Arches" by Kevin Puts?

Bella: I had played Kevin's Violin Concerto in Grand Rapids, and I really, really liked it. When I came up with the idea of making an unaccompanied program, it was really centered around the Chaconne, that was my inspiration for the whole program. I knew I wanted to do the Red Violin Caprices, and I knew I wanted the Paganiniana by Milstein. I thought, wouldn't it be great to have something else by a young, living composer? I knew Kevin had a solo work, so I emailed him and asked about this piece. He sent me the music for "Arches," and I thought it fit really well with the program. His first variation is actually inspired, in part, by The Red Violin Caprices. The first variation of The Red Violin Caprices is the scene where the young prodigy, Kaspar Weiss, is made to practice faster and faster, until he just can't play any faster.

Laurie: Doesn't he drop dead or something?

Bella: I don't remember that! There's a lot of death in the movie.

So Kevin's inspiration for his first movement of "Arches" was also this scene. The movement starts very melodic, a little Appalachian in character, and then he increases the note values and he also speeds up the tempo gradually. The whole first movement gets faster and faster and faster. So I thought it would be a nice transition, after the Corigliano, into the Piazzola and before the Milstein. I knew I wanted to end with the Chaconne, and with the Bach. And when I performed the program, I played an encore, but I just played the Bach Sarabande, because I don't think anything goes after the Chaccone. It's such an emotional piece for me, and you kind of feel drained afterwards.

One neat thing also: the program starts and ends on the exact same note, on D just above middle C.

Laurie: How long have you been playing the Chaconne? It seems like that's one of those lifelong works.

Bella: It definitely is. I learned it while I was a student at Curtis, about eight years ago. Every time I've played the Chaconne, whether I'm practicing it or performing it, I get this overwhelming feeling that if there was one piece of music I had to choose to play for the rest of my life -- I could only pick one -- it would be the Chaconne. There are many pieces of music that I love, but I don't get that feeling about any of them. I think every human emotion is represented in the Chaconne: there's triumph, there's sadness, there's happiness, there's worry, anxiety, tension. There's incredible tenderness, and there's a sense of loss, also, in some parts. For me it's an especially moving piece.

Laurie: Let's rewind to the beginning, where were you born and what made you start playing the violin in the first place?

Bella: I was born in Pleven, Bulgaria, and I started playing the violin when I was six, because my mom wanted me to. I wanted to play the piano -- but my mom wanted me to be a violinist, so I started playing the violin. She played the piano and she was a choral conductor. My father was a composer, so I was around music from a very early age.

I started lessons, and my first public performance was six months after I started playing. I played a very small piece called "The Little Duck," but it was in Bulgaria's biggest hall, with a live audience of maybe 5,000 people and a T.V. audience of many more people; it was broadcast in Italy.

Laurie: Little duck, big audience! How did you get such a big audience for "The Little Duck"?

Bella: (she laughs) I don't remember! It was a big festival in Sofia (Bulgaria).

Laurie: At some point, you must have had to decide that you wanted to do it, not just your mom.

Bella: It's been very gradual. I love the violin, I love it so much. And I moved (to the United States) when I was 13 to continue my studies. I was sort of an exchange student, and I lived with a host family and had private lessons. While I was in Michigan I met Ida Kavafian, and I came to Curtis to study with her when I was 17. And obviously, if you come to Curtis, you know that this is what you are going to do. But I think, after I came to Curtis, that's when it really became about me, that this was for me and not for my mom. It's such a nurturing place. I can't say enough praises about Curtis.

Laurie: It seems like Curtis Institute would be a pressure-cooker, but actually a lot of people seem to feel that it's very nurturing. What was Ida like?

Bella: I've learned so much of what I know from Ida and Jaime Laredo. Those are two of my heroes; I owe so much to them.

Ida was a wonderful teacher. She was very picky, and she focused not so much on technique but on knowing how to do things in the most efficient technical way possible so that then you could focus on the music. I learned so much about how to make smart fingering choices from her, and to make fingerings for the phrase that are still convenient. Or maybe not-so-convenient! But if they work for the phrase, then you sacrifice a little bit of convenience. I think she just taught me to think like a musician and a violinist, instead of just like a violinist.

Laurie: What did you feel you learned from Jaime Laredo?

Bella: Jaime was very much about the big picture. I would play through a piece, a concerto or a Bach -- then go back to the beginning and play through it again, but he would tell you things and stop. He sort of expected you to know the details. He might be different with younger students, who go to him for their college degree. I went to him after Curtis, for an Artist's Diploma, so for me it was really like polishing everything that I'd already learned.

Laurie: How did you like IU?

Bella: Different, very different from Curtis. As nurturing as Curtis is, once you're out in the 'real world,' like IU, you go from 160 students to 40,000 students. Instead of being able to walk into an office and get your ID, you have to go to a different building and it's a machine -- they say everything is online but I couldn't find anything online! It was overwhelming at first. But I went there for Jaime, and that made it all worth it. And I really grew to love Bloomington and Indiana and when I moved back to Philly, I miss it every now and then.

I took a jazz dance class there. I could not do that at Curtis! I was very uncoordinated!

Laurie: That's hard to believe!

Bella: Different coordination!

Laurie: What would you like to tackle next?

Bella: I would love to do another recording project. My idea with "Unaccompanied" was to create a recital program around a masterwork for the violin, which, in that case, was the Chaccone. I would love to do another program like that, maybe around the Bartok Solo Sonata.

Laurie: What intrigues you most about that work?

Bella: I feel like I'm from that part of the world; maybe it intrigues me for that. Also, when I won the competition in New Zealand, I did a winner's concert tour, and the Bartok Solo Sonata was on the recital program that was chosen most often. So I got to play it night after night, and my interpretation evolved. I thought, 'How great would it be, to create a program around that?'

I read a book about Bartok called The Naked Face of Genius: Béla Bartók's American Years by Agatha Fassett. It's out of print, but I highly recommend it. (Fassett) writes it as a friend. It's not a musicology book; it seemed like a novel, it was so easy to read. It was so sad to read about Bartok at the end of his life -- he was not very well-off. I think he was quite sick, and that's when he wrote the solo sonata, for Menuhin. He received something like $1,000 for it. I just think it's a great piece of music, I'm really drawn to it. I'm drawn to the technique of it and to the music, and I'd love to design a program around it.

Laurie: Tell me about this Amati violin you're playing. I understand it's a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin, once owned by the violinist Louis Krasner. What is it like to play it?

Bella: I love the Amati violin, and I'm so lucky to have it. I've had it for almost 10 years now.

Laurie: Sometimes people say that the older violins are harder to use, or they don't project as much, but listening on this recording, it seems like it projects very well, actually.

Bella: This instrument has a huge sound, and I've really learned how to use it over the last 10 years. I've been told that, for any violin, but especially for an Amati, it has a really, really big sound. It definitely carries in halls. I don't know if it's harder to play; it's definitely more temperamental than a new violin -- if there's too much humidity, if there's not enough humidity! (she laughs) But I take it to Tarisio in New York, and they do wonderful work on it whenever it needs work. So I think it's in really good shape. I like my strings on the high side. I use Vision Titanium Solos. I find that with slightly higher strings, right around 4 and 6 mm on the G and D, I can dig more without hitting against the fingerboard, and I think I can get a bigger sound that way.

Laurie: Does that involve just having a higher bridge?

Bella: Yes, but then in the summer, when it gets too humid, the neck can drop, and then the strings can get even higher. Then it's actually uncomfortable to play.

* * *

BELOW: Bella Hristova plays (live!) for the 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grants ceremony, May 15, 2013. Program: John Corigliano: "Red Violin Caprices"; Ástor Piazzolla: Tango Etude No. 4; George Gershwin: "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess" (Arr. Jascha Heifetz), w/ Noreen Polera, pianist. Includes interview with Robert Sherman. (Her album, "Bella Unaccompanied" is available on Amazon and on iTunes.)


June 28, 2013 at 02:36 PM · "I do scales and arpeggios ... from the Galamian book: four-octave scales, all the three octave arpeggios, starting from G going to G ... it takes me 15 to 20 minutes to do all the scales and arpeggios."

Okay, from this we should be able to calculate the average tempo of her scales and arpeggios. Anyone with the Galamian book want to give that a go? (I would do it except I only have the Flesch, Hrimaly, and Fischer scale books.)

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