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A TEACHER'S KEY NOTES

Conducting a whole tradition of music

by Everett Kennedy Brown

When symphony conductor Stefan Nedyalkov first visited Tokyo as a child in 1977, he had a premonition. He awoke in his hotel room one morning, convinced that he would return to Japan someday and live here. He was 11 years old at the time and a member of the children’s choir of Bulgarian National Radio.

Even after he returned to his hometown of Sofia, though, the influence of Japan was never too far away. His father, Bulgarian composer and conductor Hristo Nedyalkov, frequently hosted dinner parties for Japanese musicians, composers and intellectuals. In 1995, Emperor Akihito awarded him the distinguished Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette medal, the highest nonpolitical award given to foreigners, for promoting cultural relations between Bulgaria and Japan.

The younger Nedyalkov shares not only his father’s gift for music but also his fascination with Japan. Since that first visit to Tokyo, he has toured Japan 11 times, either in conjunction with the children’s choir, or accompanying his father on concert tours.

Before coming to live in Japan, Stefan Nedyalkov trained with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and worked as an assistant professor at a state music academy in Sofia. As a conductor, his ability to interpret the works of composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms received critical acclaim; and his performances were featured on many recordings produced by Bulgarian National Radio. As a finalist in competitions such as the Leonard Bernstein International Conducting Competition, he was invited to work with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the London Royal Academy of Music.

After Nedyalkov conducted an impressive performance by the Bulgarian National Musical Academy Symphony Orchestra during a cultural festival organized by the Japanese Embassy in Sofia in 1997, the Japanese ambassador to Bulgaria invited Nedyalkov to apply for the JET program.

When Nedyalkov arrived in Japan in July 1999, to work as music adviser in Kitakyushu’s concert hall, his childhood premonition finally came true. This is Nedyalkov’s third and final year in Japan under the auspices of the JET program. As a music adviser in Kitakyushu, Nedyalkov has conducted the Kitakyushu Symphony Orchestra, the Hibiki String Orchestra and the Kitakyushu Junior Orchestra. He has also supervised musical training workshops for local musicians and in the summer of 2001 organized a concert tour in Bulgaria for 50 children from the Kitakyushu City Children’s Choir.

What has been the response to Nedyalkov’s musical activities in Kitakyushu?

“He has given us the opportunity to touch the spirit of Western classical music,” says Hiroshi Nakata, a bassoonist with the Kitakyushu Symphony Orchestra. “Nedyalkov has a wealth of experience working with the world’s greatest musicians. When we performed the Shostakovich symphonies, he told us stories of the composer’s life that he had heard directly from Shostakovich’s intimate friends. These stories helped us to understand the composer’s work better.”

Nedyalkov’s work as a conductor in Japan was not without conflict. Western classical music in Japan is taught by formula, according to Nakata, in a way very similar to traditional Japanese arts. The primary aim is to practice a musical score until technical precision is achieved. For Nedyalkov and many professional Western performers, however, emphasis is placed more on skillfully interpreting the music. In rehearsals, when Nedyalkov attempted to share his musical interpretations, many of the Japanese musicians found his departures from their familiar way of playing difficult to follow.

The Japanese approach to playing music has been a topic of fascination for Nedyalkov. “Music theorists have found that a country’s language influences its musical tradition,” Nedyalkov explains. “If you look at the Japanese language, you see that it is spoken in a kind of static rhythm. When people speak, they do not put emphasis on particular syllables or words as we do in the West. This same attitude is carried over into the way people tend to play music in Japan.”

What is Nedyalkov’s view of the Japanese music and cultural scene? “Education and cultural development are, I believe, vitally important for the welfare of Japanese people in the 21st century,” says Nedyalkov. “And the JET program is a great way to invite talented musicians, painters, poets and other artists to Japan to develop local cultural and exchange programs.”

There are already many skilled musicians and beautiful concert halls throughout the country, continues Nedyalkov. What is lacking, he says, are the audiences and community support groups, common in the West, that are necessary for a local symphony to thrive.

“It takes years, but by supporting children’s symphonies, adult and elderly symphonies, and international exchange programs, the foundation for a musically sophisticated audience can be achieved here in Japan.”