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Stanichka Dimitrova: Urgent Messages From 200 Years Ago

Violinist Stanichka Dimitrova discusses why 18th century music matters to 21st century listeners.

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Image by Ellen Brofman: Chieh-Fan Yiu, viola, Adrian Daurov, cello, Stanichka Dimitrova, violin, and Igor Pikayzen, violin

Stanichka Dimitrova is a professional violinist in New York City. Last month, her newly-formed newly formed chamber music series PhiloSonia performed their inaugural performance at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. It was a sampler of her upcoming season, which is divided into four themes: The Composer as Architect, The Composer as Confessor, The Composer as Redeemer, and The Composer as Rebel. She elaborated on her Myers-Briggs-like breakdown of composers, and explained how successfully music from two hundred years ago can cater to today’s audiences, venues, and emotions.

Aditi Sriram for Guernica.

Guernica: Why the focus on composers?

Stanichka Dimitrova: You can listen to a piece and it can make you cry. The person who wrote it clearly had a lot they wanted to say, and a powerful message will carry, through music, over time and space. Music and sound are so primal, it goes way beyond any kind of sophisticated speech or language. I think we can connect through sound much more deeply, and communicate through it much better than we do with language, if we trust what we hear. If we open up, really, to sound.

The composers we performed last month—Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn—were not just musicians who wrote great music. They were philosophers, really well read, had had amazing experiences, and were incredibly smart people. The way they used this abstract form to communicate all that is incredible. There’s so much we can take away from it, especially today. But we’ve distanced our listeners with big concert calls.

I wanted the audience to reflect for themselves: how do you think each composer interprets death?

I don’t think it’s that important to tell the audience when a composer lived or when he was born, but they need something to feel closer to him. Even if it’s something small, it will allow the audience to finally appreciate the music. Then they feel more connected—to the composer, and to the music—in the most human way.

Guernica: Can you give me an example?

Stanichka Dimitrova: In my ‘Composer as Rebel’ concert, I will juxtapose Beethoven with Schnittke, most likely. He was a modern composer who just, on purpose, took a turn compositionally because he was so fed up with what was happening around him. This happened a lot around the First and Second World War. There was so much ugliness in the world that it no longer made sense to musicians; they had to do something different with their music.

Beethoven’s war, however, was internal. As I said at our concert in March, he was growing deaf, and became so bitter that he wanted to kill himself. The only thing that kept him going was his art, and once Beethoven decided that he would make music his way, it changed dramatically, and became very bold and defiant:

Beethoven String Quartet Op 59, No 3, IV movement, performed by PhiloSonia

You can hear the strength of the human spirit in this heroic symphony—its power and positive attitude in the face of darkness. Beethoven’s music became incredibly strong, and very different from everything anyone had heard. He did this consciously; he had nothing to lose at this point. And it’s great to hear that in the music.

Guernica: Why not focus on one composer at a time? Why juxtapose one with another?

Stanichka Dimitrova: I think it’s important to give examples of how different people think differently about the same thing. Multiple musicians can start a conversation, which the audience can then reflect on. There’s never a right or wrong way to experience things—especially music—and this structure gives the audience the freedom to experience it in their own way, and take the message of the composers as they like.

You need to let the audience open up those places in themselves, and be able to receive and experience them.

I tend to go towards darkness; music that is turbulent. As I researched these musicians—Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Smetana—I saw that they all had reasons for being turbulent. Composing music was their therapy. It was the only way to keep going. I found a letter Schubert had written, after he was hospitalized for syphilis and knew he was going to die, which I read to our audience. It was after his diagnosis that he composed “Death and the Maiden,” and reading his letter to the audience put them in a frame of mind to receive it. Every movement is dark and brooding, like he’s not ready to face the end. But his last string quintet is beautiful, peaceful. It shows wisdom and growth. And that was the last thing he wrote.

Composition was the best outlet for him, and for Mendelssohn, who had just lost his sister. I wanted to share their outlet with the audience. I also wanted the audience to reflect for themselves: how do you think each composer interprets death? How does the music reflect the composers’ emotional state, in a way they can filter through themselves? In this way the audience could relate, and open themselves up, to the music.

Guernica: Even when the backstory is so tragic?

Stanichka Dimitrova: I think it’s so beautiful when something so great can come out of somebody’s pain. With Schubert, for example, his music was therapeutic for himself, but it can be even more so when someone else listens to it: the music has this energy, even if the listener doesn’t know what the context is.

The power of music is based on that primal reaction. The composer is a master of sound: he knows how to express those deep places in himself, and then communicate it to others. The bottom line is, you need to let the audience open up those places in themselves, and be able to receive and experience them. They need to know that this music, inspired by personal tragedy and crisis, was meant for them.

Guernica: Will you always preface your performance with information about the composers?

Stanichka Dimitrova: I research the composers to see what my audience can relate to in the music. I want to stay away from giving a lecture; I want to spark an interest. If listeners want, they can read more. All I want to do is open them up and let them experience it, let them become curious about it.

Somebody who left work an hour ago needs to understand why they’ve come to this concert.

This music is for everyone, and is just as current as hiphop or anything happening now. It has the same urgency, even though it was written so long ago. A musician today may be gone in five to ten years, but these pieces of music are still around two hundred years later. They contain urgent messages that audiences today need to hear.

Guernica: And PhiloSonia is conveying them?

Stanichka Dimitrova: Artists nowadays need to think more about context and delivery: why and how we’re putting concerts together. In the past, one Mozart, one Haydn, one Beethoven and one Brahms made for a great program. But not any more. You need to think why and how. What are listeners getting out of this music? Why should they come to this concert? You need to plan the listening experience, from beginning to end, the way a director thinks about a movie they are making.

Musicians need to become interpreters, too—be more than a musician, an artist—to really get your audience. It no longer makes sense to go into a hall and listen to classical music without any kind of context or background. As our life and culture change, we musicians need to go along with it and see how we can adapt. You have to consider where people are coming from. Somebody who left work an hour ago needs a way to enter the music being performed. They need a reason to understand why they’ve come to this concert. We need to tell them enough about the music, the composer, to help them recognize, ‘I had that experience yesterday!’

Aditi Sriram teaches at SUNY Purchase and has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, among other publications. Read more of her work on her website.

Stanichka Dimitrova is a graduate from the Juilliard School, where she studied with Sally Thomas. She recently received her doctoral degree at Stony Brook University, studying with Philip Setzer, Pamela Frank, Soovin Kim and Philippe Graffin. As a Teaching Artist for the New York Philharmonic’s School Partnership Program, she participates in a variety of outreach activities and performances in public schools throughout New York. Visit her website for more details.

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