Vivi Vassileva

‘We Need To Always Search For More’

Vivi Vassileva Performs Jacob Gade’s Tango Jalousie

Percussionist Vivi Vassileva

Vivi Vassileva © Wiener Konzerthaus and Julia Wesley

Hailing from Hof in southeast Germany, percussionist Vivi Vassileva grew up in a family of Bulgarian musicians and has been described as ‘hold[ing] an exceptional musicality combined with poetic expression’. Recording her first CD aged just 15, she has gone on to collaborate with numerous artists and orchestras in and around Europe. Her summer is being spent preparing for a performance of Friedrich Cerha’s Percussion Concerto this October with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and talks to me from her family’s summer home in Bulgaria, on the coast of the Black Sea.

What inspired you to take up your instrument?

My father was a violinist in an orchestra, and I have three older siblings, so he would give each one of us a violin and start giving us lessons.

As I’m the youngest, I started doing it because obviously, I would copy my older siblings as an example, but it wasn’t really from the heart, so I didn’t practise a lot and my father was very, very unhappy with me!

I was born in Germany but my parents have a house on the coast of the Black Sea. Close to […] this house there is a wild beach, and in my childhood there would always be musicians playing with hand drums, and when I was 7 or 8 years old I was observing them from a distance and really wanted to try out the drums.

One day, there was a friend of ours who also knew them and so she connected us – they got me in their circle of hand drums. I played a djembe, which was actually too big for me, but I started playing with those musicians right away. For me, it was a life-changing experience. From that moment on I didn’t care about the water and swimming, I was just spending all day, for the rest of the summer, with this hand percussion.

When we went back to Germany I pleaded with my father, ‘Please, please, send me to percussion lessons!’ It took one year, and then he sent me to professional lessons.

What inspired you to become a professional?

Percussionist Vivi Vassileva

© Wiener Konzerthaus and Julia Wesley

Because of my family, I knew what it took to be a musician, so I somehow had really big respect for that. I wasn’t really sure if I could, because I knew you had to live for it.

I remember when I was 13 years old, my percussion teacher just dropped the idea of me doing this later as if it was the most normal thing to do, and then I started believing in myself and [thinking], ‘Maybe I could be a musician too.’ And then around 14, it was already a decision for me.

Who inspires you now?

I was around 14 or 15 when I heard Martin Grubinger for the first time, on the internet. It was my first time seeing a percussion concerto where you combine marimba, vibraphone, and all those different drums, and I remember seeing this and I thought ‘Wow, yes! This is the way.’

Then when I studied with him, I got to know him and see what an incredible percussionist and musician he is. He inspires me to this day.

Which composers do you feel the most comfortable with?

I really love to play Bach. I somehow feel with Bach that every musician has their own personal very special relationship with him, and it’s always such a deep emotional connection to the instrument, playing Bach. But I try to fall in love with everything that I play!

Vivi Vassileva Performs J.S.Bach’s Prelude in C-minor

Is there any repertoire you haven’t performed yet that you would like to in the future?

I have this idea in my mind that I want to do a bigger show with an ensemble where I combine my Bulgarian roots, arranging and writing music, and finding a lot of different musicians from different genres to play with.

My plan for next year is to learn two other percussion concertos that I really like. At the moment I’m constantly eating up new repertoire.

Vivi Vassileva Performs Bulgarian Folk Song Kalino Mome on Marimba and Percussion

Is there a particular composer / piece that you’ve really felt your relationship will change with over time (for better or worse)?

If we play the same piece a lot of times, I think the most dangerous thing for an artist is to feel in a routine, because then you’re not an artist anymore, you’re just working, and it loses so much magic. To stay an artist, to always have that magic in the music, we need to always search for more.

Do you find inspiration from things other than music?

Percussionist Vivi Vassileva

© Adriana Yankulova

Absolutely. The seaside by this house in Bulgaria, for example: a couple of weeks ago, we slept on the beach for one night, and we looked at the sea and saw a red light. We thought, ‘Is this a ship?’ And then it started getting stronger and stronger and we realised it was actually the moon coming out.

These moments, I think they somehow give us sense for music later. I always try to have images like this in the music, especially when playing Bach actually – I always have some kind of background story in my head.

As a child I was really in love with different stories from different countries. I had CDs of all the Greek legends and would listen to them every night and know them by heart, and also German short stories, and Russian and Bulgarian stories – I really love these fairytales.

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