The Lunch Break of a Culture Snob

Dear Reader,

I don’t know how it is with you, but I like to have my office lunch break as streamlined and as efficient as possible. I get up from my desk at 12 o’clock sharp, I go to the office fridge, take out the lunch that I’ve put there first-thing in the morning, put on, rather impolitely, my handset headphones, and in about 25 minutes I am at my desk again, ready to keep going. Lunchboxes washed up, dried and ready to be taken home, of course.

Good morning, workplace. My employer seems to like me, for when we moved to a new office last June, I got a desk with a window.

In the past I’ve tried to have lunch with co-workers, but that ended up in my having to put up with people not being hungry when I was, people willing to go have lunch somewhere else, people inclined to talk rather than eat, thereby extending the lunch break to unacceptable lengths and so on. So I changed my strategy for the sake of having maximum independence and flexibility, perhaps recording a drop in office popularity and gaining a few notches in unapproachability. Oh well. 

Close-up on the books. Music criticism on Schubert’s ten symphonies, which he had composed by the time he died aged 30, four Ibsen plays and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in Bulgarian. The translation is superb, I remember reading it on the bus as a teen and giggling, to the dismay of the other passengers. Of the Ibsen plays, I’ve read A Doll House only, the others are still waiting for their moment of glory. And the Schubert thing I took on Monday from the guitar practice room in the music school – I found it under a desk, next to the small bottle of hard liquor the other guitar teacher is keeping there to steady his nerves before a performance. 🙂

Occasionally, though, I like to break off from my routine, eat early and then go visit one of Sofia’s more high-brow museums – those showcasing the life’s work of distinguished Kulturtraeggers and because of that not really expecting a flow of visitors, as shown by their opening hours – 9 to 5, Monday to Friday – when all conscientious citizens should be toiling to boost the national GDP at their respective workplaces.

Coffee, a water decanter, a black fan, a mirror and two lipsticks. I need to have my things around me. A bare desk with a bamboo stick and a pile of zen stones simply won’t do. The beautiful lamb leather Koran cover holds my work notebooks. I have not given up on paper entirely, I’m old-school.

I told you about one such escape – to the tiny flat of mid-20th century writer Dimitar Dimov – here. Last week, my destination was the home of composer and pianist of Bulgarian-Jewish descent Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), to whom the Bulgarian Conservatoire, or Music Academy, has been named.

Some sort of fowl on the metal fence surrounding Vladigerov’s home in Lozenets, the beloved district of Bulgaria’s elite of the near past.

Vladigerov’s music is generally considered complex and high-brow – it does not have the immediateness of marches, the lyric vulnerability of nocturnes, the flow of walzes or the foot-tapping rhythm of other instrumental dance music. It is convoluted, often loud and deliberately dissonant, so it does not rank very high in the preferences of the average Bulgarian. In the same time, Vladigerov is perhaps the best-known and the most-performed Bulgarian composer abroad, the complex harmonies of his music being accessible for appreciation only to the highly trained minds and ears of professional musicians.

A view from Vladigerov’s garden onto the nearby residential building of flats. And of course – Bulgaria’s ubiquitous roses.

It is remarkable that even his mother, who ardently fostered Pancho’s and his brother’s musical talent, was known to have been vocal about her dislike of his more mature compositions. But then, she was his mother, so her stance had often been accepted as a form of a humble brag.

Little Pancho on the piano, his brother Lyuben on the violin and their mother, watching like a hawk over her children’s musical talent. Her name was Elisa Pasternak and she was a gynecologist.

During communism, when “classical” music was much more popular with the masses than today, not the least because of the heavy censorship on popular music and the adequate funding of symphonic orchestras and concert programmes, common mortals not related to Vladigerov by ties of blood, enjoyed higher exposure to his works and were expected to know and like them. Many professed they do, but few actually did.

This used to be the living room, connected to a large covered verandah and a balcony. Various chamber-size events like book presentations and such are currently being held there. The museum curator took my email and promised to send me invitations to the events the museum organises or stages. I’m looking forward.

In line with this, one of these days I was amused to read a story on faking appreciation for complex symphonic works, called A Study on Snobs, and published in a Bulgarian culture and arts portal, which I often visit. It is basically about an unnamed Bulgarian composer, who worked and lived abroad, while his mother, not much impressed with her son’s achievements in musical composition, lived in Bulgaria. One day the son sent a recording of one of his works, performed by a renowned orchestra, to a friend of his in Sofia. At his home, he gathered friends, the composer’s mother included, and played the tape on a magnetophon.

Everybody, except the composer’s mother, said they were in awe with the music they’d heard. Some time later, the author of the essay got a phone call from the person who had hosted the musical get-together. He said that then he had accidentally played the tape backwards (you could do that on a magnetophon), so the guests had not heard the actual music but some distorted version of it. He had played the tape correctly as soon as he had realised his mistake. “And how was it?”, the essay author asked. “Worse”, the magnetophon owner replied.

Morale – if you’re going to make an ass of yourself, at least do so by telling the truth. 🙂 What do you say?

The study. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it.

I am leaving you now to a part of Vladigerov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which I actually like. This video, while not featuring the whole thing, has the benefit of showcasing Sofia, as seen from the personal high-definition drone of my favourite pianist Georgi Cherkin. 🙂 So enjoy this sweet concerto excerpt that sounds like summer rain, and the views of my beautiful city of the divine wisdom. 🙂

The other half of the study. This tiny room housed two pianos and probably 100 framed photos.

It sounds a bit like Debussy and a bit like Stravinsky, doesn’t it? Other Vladigerov compositions have much in common with Richard Strauss’ loud movie soundtrack-type music. I am not saying Vladigerov copied, not at all, I am just evoking the l’aire du temps of his works for you. To the extent that I understand it, that is. I might be making an ass of myself too. 🙂

Talk soon,

I am not sure about a snob, but I’m certainly a culture consumer – I couldn’t leave the museum without a disc for the car. I was very happy to get the car back yesterday, by the way, after it had been away for a paint job for an entire week. As far as city mobility goes, I like to be my own man. 🙂
The entire op.15 is beautiful, you might want to look it up on the youtube. The Prelude is tumultuous, the Autumn Elegy is gentle and repressed and the Humoresque has that particular pearly sound typical of piano compositions of the first half of the 20th century. Like fairies dancing in the air. All pieces do have a melody, listen carefully and you’ll hear it. 🙂 A Humoresque is a short character piece evoking a fanciful mood and a Prelude is usually a sequence of scale-like passages and chord cadences played either as block chords, arpeggios or some in-between pattern. Enjoy!