Interview with Lilia Boyadjieva

The piano artistry of Lilia Boyadjieva was first brought to my attention back in 1997 by a Greek friend, who urged me to hear a newly-released recording of the complete piano music of Samuel Barber featuring a Bulgarian pianist of his acquaintance. Somewhat skeptical that an unknown Bulgarian pianist living in France would have much to say about the music of an American composer whose works had already been assayed by such stellar figures as Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, and John Browning, I agreed to listen to it, motivated largely by a sense of obligation to my Greek friend, and also by the fact that the disc included several very early pieces I had never heard or seen before. I had always felt that Barber’s highly-touted Piano Sonata was an inherently flawed work, despite its many admirers, and that even the best pianists, trying a variety of approaches, failed to produce a fully successful result. I was in for a considerable surprise, because I found Boyadjieva’s to be the most fully realized rendition of the work I had ever heard. And I felt the same about the late Ballade, which, in the hands of most pianists, sounded like mediocre ersatz Scriabin. But this pianist was really able to breathe life into it. And the rest of the CD was similarly satisfying, resulting in my rather rash statement that this was “probably the most valuable CD solely devoted to Barber’s keyboard music.”

Since then, Boyadjieva has released two CDs on the Artek label: Around the Fugue, released in 2006, which offers a fascinating program of fugue-related pieces, from Bach, through Liszt and Franck, up to Shchedrin and C. Lee Wong (b. 1982); and, most recently, a Shostakovich program, comprising the Fantastic Dances24 Preludes, Op. 34, and Piano Sonata No. 2. Like the Barber recording, both of these display a confident sense of authority, analytical acuity, and textural clarity, combined with a voluptuous sonority. Discovering Boyadjieva confirmed my long-held belief that for every globe-trotting classical music celebrity instrumentalist there are at least ten more just as good, but barely known. So it was with great pleasure that I agreed to interview Ms. Boyadjieva on the occasion of the Shostakovich release. 

WS: How did you first become drawn to classical music and playing the piano?

LB: My father was a classically trained cellist, although he spent most of his later life playing in restaurants. He also played classical guitar, double-bass, saxophone, harmonica, and was a singer as well. So there were musical instruments all over the house, including a piano or two. My parents tried to force my older brother to learn the piano but he was very resistant. I was drawn to it, however, and would explore it on my own, trying to reproduce melodies I had heard—that sort of thing.

WS: How old were you when you began to study the piano seriously?

LB: Well, when I was five my mother took me to a private teacher who then arranged for me to enter the Sofia Music School at the primary level, for children aged 6 to 13. That is where I learned to love music and the piano. The school’s serious approach instilled within me a respect for hard work and self-discipline—a definite outgrowth of the political environment. When I was 13 I entered the second level of the school, for youngsters aged 13 to 18. This was essentially a professional school totally focused on music; all other subjects remained secondary. Satisfactory completion of the secondary curriculum led directly to the Sofia Music Academy. At the Academy my main teachers were Constantine and Julia Ganev. I had an especially intense relationship with Julia, almost a “love-hate relationship.” I was headstrong, with very firmly held ideas, which she didn’t always agree with. But in retrospect I feel grateful to both of them, as they taught me how to think about music in a very profound way.

WS: What was it like, growing up in Bulgaria during the 1960s and 70s?

LB: Up to a certain age children are largely oblivious to many aspects of their environment—childhood can be so carefree. However, very, very early, I became aware of certain “taboos”—that there are things that one could not mention outside the home, at the risk of some vaguely dangerous consequences. We were often warned not to joke about certain “forbidden” subjects. My father frequently mentioned a well-known musician who suddenly disappeared after making some innocuous political joke, and eventually died in a concentration camp. It was impressed upon us that this was not simply “good manners,” but a matter of life and death.

Although I was never personally bothered or pursued by any political organization, as I grew older I realized that I could not aspire to any meaningful form of “official” career without some degree of active participation in one or another political entity. But I refused to enter into this kind of game. I guess I was naïvely trying to live up to some ideal of truth and integrity in my own eyes. (I say “naïvely” after observing the way most people respond to such pressures.) This situation led to my decision to leave the country, so that I could be free to be my true self.

WS: When and how did you leave?

LB: My teachers, the Ganevs, were in regular contact with the major conservatories in Greece. It was through their efforts that I was offered a teaching position in Athens, which I accepted immediately. I saw this as an opportunity to escape the suffocating ambiance of Bulgaria. As it happened, I wasn’t sure that I would get an exit visa until the last minute. But I did, and left for Greece in 1984. The following year I won a prize in the Maria Callas Competition, and that helped me develop a pretty active career and a good reputation. But I maintained my connection with Bulgaria during the years that followed, by paying some taxes (possibly just bribes) and keeping in touch by returning to Sofia frequently. I lived in Greece until 1990, and still return to visit and perform frequently.
But my real dream has always been to live in the United States. It still is, actually. I would love to find a teaching position, and give master classes in the U.S. Perhaps in a summer program—I’ve done a good deal of that in Europe.

WS: How long have you been living in France? What made you decide to live there?

LB: My husband, whom I met in Greece, is a French citizen. So I agreed to live in France, although I really knew nothing about the country, other than that I could obtain citizenship there. Despite the change of regime that had taken place in Eastern Europe, I hadn’t yet gotten past the psychological “need to flee.” Living in Paris with my husband, and raising my two daughters there, we decided to stay there.

WS: How do you select repertoire to play and record? What are the factors that draw you to certain composers?

LB: It is difficult to identify all the factors that contribute to such decisions. When I am considering repertoire for a recording, I would say that the two main criteria are the originality of the idea—I have no interest in repeating something that has already been done time and time again, so that it is difficult to develop fresh, new ideas about the work—and my personal affection and affinity for the particular music.

For the Barber CD, for instance, I had heard the piano sonata in my youth on Bulgarian radio and fell in love with it. When I decided to make the CD, I discovered that there were relatively few recordings available of several of his works. At the suggestion of [Fanfare‘s own] Martin Anderson, I went to meet Barbara Heyman, Barber’s biographer. She showed me Barber’s archives, and we found some interesting items that had never been recorded before. My decision was made!

Then, having always enjoyed playing fugues, I developed what seemed to be an original and exciting idea of combining them into a sort of historical anthology. Hence the “Around the Fugue” CD, which I recorded in Greece.

As for Shostakovich, I was drawn strongly to his music after reading Solomon Volkov’s Testimony. Comparing the commentaries written by established musicologists during Shostakovich’s own lifetime—the only source of information during my youth—with the accounts given in Testimony, I find the latter much more convincing, no matter how inaccurate some details may be (according to certain critics). As a result, both my understanding of this music and my feelings about it became much deeper. I realized that my previous grasp of the music had been limited by the official socialistic drivel of the old days. The fact that the sonata [Piano Sonata No. 2] is very rarely played made me wish to draw attention to it, by projecting the emotion hidden in its apparent dryness and simplicity, which some seem to find unattractive.

WS: How do you view your “mission” or “role” as a classical musician in today’s world?

LB: As a concert pianist, I view my mission to be the re-creation of music according to my understanding of the composer’s intentions. But I also feel that my performances must have meaning and make sense to me. I must feel some personal satisfaction from them as well.

As a teacher, I feel obligated to impart my understanding of the music to those students who are capable of grasping it. And I very much enjoy doing that. I am trying to make music truly meaningful within a milieu in which flat, sterile interpretation seems, unfortunately, to be the norm.

WS: I see the Western Classical Tradition dwindling in importance among younger people. Is this your impression too? If so, are you concerned about it? What are your thoughts about it?

LB: I am not so sure that the Western Classical Tradition is really dwindling. Not that I am convinced of the contrary, but I believe it is very difficult to assess this issue objectively. Several factors, from demographics to ease of access, vary considerably and affect any such evaluation.

Because of its greater complexity, the art music tradition requires much greater effort and deeper involvement in order for people to really appreciate and enjoy it. The music that seems to attract big crowds of young people tends to be simple, rhythmical, and usually with elemental melodic lines, making it readily accessible and enjoyable without the need of any special effort.

So I find it very difficult to compare quantitatively whether the actual number of classical music lovers is really smaller, in proportion, than it was, say, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.

WS: I initially discovered your playing through your brilliant recording devoted to the piano music of Samuel Barber. Is there an American distributor for this recording yet? I understand that you have been commemorating Barber’s centennial with recitals in Ireland, Greece, and France. How is his music viewed in Europe today—at least in the countries where you have performed it?

LB: Unfortunately there is no American distributor for the initial Barber CD, although it is available via However I am looking into the possibility of providing access to this recording by direct Internet purchase and download.

As for the public’s reaction upon discovering this music, they are mostly surprised that it is so accessible—the average listener is usually afraid of 20th-century music; they tend to find it too difficult to understand and enjoy. Many have fallen in love with Barber’s melodic and emotional content, as well as its jazzy elements.

WS: Shostakovich authority Louis Blois has mentioned to me that he is stunned by the beautiful tone you achieve, which he has described as “elegant, sumptuous, and shimmering.” He notes that these are qualities that are rarely applied in playing the piano music of Shostakovich. Did you make a conscious decision to approach his music in this way, or was this a more spontaneous phenomenon?

LB: Prof. Louis Blois’s comments are especially kind and flattering to me.

The way I approached this music, as I do with all music that I become involved with, is not at all spontaneous, but the result of hard work and fully conscious soul-searching, in an effort to find and convincingly project the deep meaning of each piece. I find that so many performers of 20th century music seem content just to render what is in the score. They don’t seem to concern themselves with matters of interpretation that might help to reveal the music’s deeper meaning.

WS: I think that is because often these performers don’t have a real understanding of what they’re playing—its “deeper meaning”—beyond simply what’s indicated in the score.

Who are some of the other composers you would like the opportunity to perform and record?

LB: I feel uncomfortable even to mention it, but lately I’ve had the notion to play some of Schubert’s sonatas. I’ve always liked the sonata as a compositional form and I find his writing pure, unencumbered, and clean—few notes with lots of musical content. Although it might sound very strange, I find that it shares similar characteristics with the music of Shostakovich.

WS: Do you have a plan for a next recording?

LB: We have an agreement in principle with Artek about another CD in the near future, although the program hasn’t been decided. Maybe Schubert—maybe some contemporary Bulgarian composers.

WS: Bulgarian composers—that sounds interesting!

Do you have any plans for concert performances in the States?

LB: Well, in October of 2010 I will be giving two programs in honor of the Samuel Barber centennial: one at the Mannes School in New York, the other at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

WS: There has been very little acknowledgment of Barber’s 100th birthday—in New York, at any rate—beyond endless performances of the Adagio for Strings. Your programs should be a breath of fresh air. I look forward to them, and I hope that all our readers located near those venues will check into your performances.

It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I will follow further developments in your career with great interest.