Kalina Vasileva

A Bulgarian Conductor Shattering Gender Stereotypes

Time to read: 8 min.

Born in the town of Shumen, Bulgaria, into a family of musicians, Kalina Vasileva completed her secondary education at the “Lyubomir Pipkov” Music School in Sofia, studying flute under the guidance of Professor Lidia Oshavkova. Vasileva also graduated from the National Music Academy in Professor Plamen Djurov’s class, majoring in flute and opera-symphonic conducting. Her doctoral degree was awarded for exploring the first Bulgarian orchestra. Additionally, she authored a book dedicated to the orchestral work in Shumen. Kalina Vasileva currently serves as a conductor at the Shumen Symphonietta.

Throughout the annals of music, male conductors have significantly overshadowed female conductors in numbers. Is the experience of a woman leading a symphony orchestra in the 21st century distinct, or have we already established robust traditions of gender equality in this domain?

Калина Василева

This subject warrants a lengthy discussion. Although strides have been made recently, women assuming the role of symphony orchestra leaders in the 21st century remains relatively uncommon. Historically, men have significantly,iku outpaced women in conducting.

In March 2020, Paris witnessed the launch of “La Maestra,” a pioneering competition dedicated to female conductors. Early 2019 data revealed the absence of female principal conductors or artistic directors in France’s national orchestras, with a mere 4% of concert programs featuring women as conductors. In Europe, female guest conductors make up 6% of the total. In contrast, only one woman holds a permanent conductor position within a national orchestra in Bulgaria, reflecting a persistently low percentage. My appointment is due mainly to my upbringing in the Shumen orchestra and the unwavering support of Director Stanislav Ushev, who played an instrumental role in my growth. I am deeply indebted to him for the opportunity and trust he placed in me, and I believe my accomplishments over the years have justified his faith. However, it is a fact that he took a double risk with my appointment – one, because I am a woman, and two – because I am young. It appears that youth is sometimes a less forgivable attribute than gender.

Serving as a lead female conductor of an orchestra indeed presents its unique challenges, as the role demands a multifaceted leadership style encompassing strong character, level-headedness, resourcefulness, intense focus, and the capacity to assume responsibility for oneself and others. The conductor must earn their orchestra members’ trust, respect, and admiration. Traditionally, such “authority” has been ascribed to the “stronger sex,” making it somewhat difficult for women to shatter these once-unshakable stereotypes.

Nonetheless, female conductors have made remarkable progress since the 20th century, and Bulgarian women are no exception. Pioneers such as Radosveta Boyadjieva (1923-2018) and Rositsa Batalova (1930-2015) fought to create and establish the concept of the “female conductor” in Bulgaria. As more women enter the field, the art of music stands to benefit from the new nuances, sensitivity, and intuition that female conductors bring to the table.

You are a conductor, as well as a flutist. When did you decide to focus primarily on conducting in your musical career?

Калина ВасилеваI’m not sure how it unfolded, but whenever I take stock of my journey thus far, I realize I’ve undertaken numerous tasks concurrently. Fortunately, they are always interconnected in some manner. The most demanding period was when I studied at both faculties of the Music Academy (Theoretical and Instrumental) and worked as an orchestra member at the Sofia Opera. It entailed constant transitions between the three buildings, lessons, lectures, rehearsals, performances, conducting concerts, and preparing for state exams in flute.

The conducting profession is multifaceted, allowing me to maintain this diverse range of activities. I find it endlessly fascinating to delve into the vast depths of music, seeking sound and interpretation while discovering ways to achieve them with a specific orchestra. We continually host exceptional musicians, and I also travel extensively. Additionally, I feel at ease on stage, and I’m not intimidated by it. Working with this particular orchestra and in this city gives me a sense of responsibility for traditions and a mission toward society.

Your parents are also musicians. How did they react to your choice to pursue the same field?

Frankly, I’m unsure whose choice it was. It just happened. When I began school, they enrolled me in a language class, not a music class. One summer, I found myself bored, so my mom decided to teach me how to play the flute. From that point on, I never sought an alternative path. Having both of them as musicians has only been advantageous to me. To this day, I rely on their opinions and advice, engaging in spirited conversations about music and discussing the work process. It was amusing when I informed them I was considering applying for conducting. There was a moment of hesitation precisely because they understood the nature of the work so well. They overcame their concerns when they saw me at the conductor’s stand. Even now, they find it more interesting to play, experiencing the music through my perspective.

Your doctoral dissertation examines the history of Bulgaria’s first classical instruments orchestra, created in Shumen. What prompted your interest in this topic regarding the city’s creation and development of orchestras?

My interest in the creation and development of orchestras in Shumen, specifically the first classical instruments orchestra in Bulgaria, was sparked by my conducting professor, Plamen Dzhurov. He encouraged me to enroll in a Ph.D. program after noticing my “talent for writing” in my master’s thesis. I had no academic career aspirations and saw no reason to pursue such an endeavor. That is, until he suggested I document the orchestra’s history in Shumen. Suddenly, I became intrigued, and everything fell into place.

It wasn’t an exaggeration when I mentioned earlier that I grew up in this orchestra. Instead of attending kindergarten, I would “go to work” with my parents, standing on a chair between the flute group and the second violins. Only now do I recognize how unique the sound experienced at the orchestra’s heart is, something a few people have the chance to encounter. The sound in the hall is different; one cannot feel the musicians’ breath, the bow’s quivering on the strings, or the conductor’s gestures. It’s magical and a love that lasts a lifetime. The sound etched in my consciousness might be what guides me, the reason I am who I am and will become. The Shumen orchestra is the source of this inspiration. Simultaneously, I have unknowingly become part of it – this rich tradition in the city where the first Bulgarian orchestra was founded. People are naturally curious about their history and family tree as they discover themselves and their place in the life cycle. For someone like me, what could be a more exciting topic?

Калина Василева

Your book “The Orchestral Art in Shumen” has been published. What does it offer to readers from the musical community and everyone else?

For now, I believe “surprise” is the word that best describes the book’s reception. It seems that the publication of such a book was necessary, and some have even suggested that similar research should be conducted for all orchestras in the country. For musicians, the book is particularly interesting because it showcases the approach to orchestral art in various periods of our history and brings attention to personalities who have been somewhat or largely forgotten. We can conclude the successes and failures of practices over the years. The book reminds us of the charm, sincerity, and aspirations toward artistic peaks that our predecessors possessed, qualities that may have been lost along the path of professionalism. We now know that thanks to them, our musical culture reached a European level in a remarkably short time. For example, in 2020, the musical world celebrated 250 years since Beethoven’s birth, Johann Sebastian Bach would have turned 335 years old, and in Bulgaria, we celebrated 170 years since the creation of the first Bulgarian orchestra in Shumen. While we may question how we can even compare, we could look at the long list of Bulgarian concertmasters worldwide today. All of this began with the curiosity of a handful of young people in Shumen. Isn’t that amazing?

Is there a recipe for how classical music can compete for the interest of contemporaries?

In my opinion, there’s no need to compete. Classical music is timeless and will endure even after us. We only need to make it accessible and a natural part of children’s upbringing. They possess the curiosity and senses to appreciate it. I’m referring to taking them to concerts and encouraging them to play an instrument. Playing is a game; in English, the word is even the same – play. They say, “I am playing the flute,” which can be translated as “I am playing the flute.” In Russian, French, and German, it’s the same. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to play a favorite melody on your own, just for pleasure? It would take half an hour a day, and the benefits are immense. Coordination, hearing, rhythm, thinking – everything is developed.

An abridged version of the original interview, published on the Bulgarian website of Argent.