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Pianist Petya Stavreva on Music and Happiness

The Quinte Society for Chamber Music Artist Interview: Petya Stavreva, Pianist

Petya Stavreva, QSCM's Romantics and Rascals Pianist, is not only an outstanding soloist and collaborative musician, she is also an extremely articulate spokeswoman for the arts, classical music and of course, pianism. Much in demand as a teacher, an adjudicator and recently appointed to Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music’s examination board, Petya shared some thoughts with me on becoming a pianist and the program for QSCM’s Nov.3 event with Peter McGillivray.

Petya, when did you first know you were going to be a professional musician?

“I was 13 when we emigrated to Canada from Bulgaria. Before we left, my mom asked my piano teacher to be completely honest about whether I need to be in music, or whether I should switch to something else. I think she was trying to find out if I had real talent and passion for music. She told the teacher that I was at an age where I could easily pick another field for my future, since I was so young. The teacher told her I would never be happy if I was not a musician. I don't know how she knew this at the time, but I never wanted to do anything else.”

A lot of young people take music lessons and play very well, but few go on to become professional musicians. What would you say to a young person considering choosing this path in life?

“I actually never considered I had any choices, because there was simply nothing else that interested me with such intensity as music. I`ve never been any good at other things such as math, science, art, languages, etc. I would say that you need to do what you feel makes you a human being. But also to acknowledge that there will be rough patches along the way, and that you will likely need to work really hard to make a living.”

What keeps you on track with your decision when it gets difficult? Have you ever thought about giving up?

“No. We always have our setbacks, but it`s important to not give up on something you`ve spent your entire life building.”

Why does it matter to you to sing in small towns like Stirling, reaching out to people who might not have heard classical music before?

“It always matters, because music is such an accessible thing, and it is a beautiful art. Everyone can enjoy it, no matter the place.”

What would you say to someone who had never heard a professional operatic singer supported by a professional collaborative pianist to encourage them to give the music a try?

“We must first ask why the arts matter to us. An appreciation for the arts is a chance for us all to better ourselves, to maybe get out of our usual world a little bit. There is evidence of art going back thousands of years, so even in our early stages we clearly felt a need to go beyond the necessary. And music is just one form. Going further, with the program I am playing in Stirling on Nov. 3 there is text - not just music. It combines two art forms: language and music.”

What do you hope listeners will with from the experience of this music?

“I hope that audiences can leave a little bit inspired and a little bit curious to explore the genre further. It is always such a direct experience to hear music live. Even if someone has heard this music before, live or not, different artists interpret these works differently, and that is one of the most interesting aspects of the performing arts.”

The program leads off with Schumann's Dichterliebe. Schumann's work falls into the genre of "Art Song." The second half of the program includes operatic arias. What is the difference?

“They are both set with text. But the art songs are written strictly for piano and voice, whereas the arias are for voice and orchestra. The piano then has to reduce and adapt the orchestral part to suit the piano (as some of it, depending on the repertoire, can be literally impossible to play at the piano, unless you have five hands), while keeping the role of orchestra throughout the aria - meaning, the pianist has to be aware of which instruments originally play the parts at any given point and give appropriate nuance according to each instrument`s temperament. It`s important to realize that the arias are small selections extracted from certain operas, whereas art song cycles, such as Dichterliebe, were originally supposed to be performed as is.”

The title of the Nov. 3 program is "Romantics and Rascals." The second half opens with Mozart’s famous and beloved “Catalogue Aria,” given to Don Giovanni, (AKA Don Juan) one the most notorious womanizers in our cultural history In the wake of revelations concerning sexual misconduct and leveraging of social media in sexual politics to affect change,

most notably through the "#METOO" movement, how do we how do we retain and celebrate the aesthetic value of this music, without appearing to endorse the attitude informing the text?

“Being aware of this issue is the most important. But it is also important to realize that this is just art, and it absolutely doesn't have to condone any unacceptable behavior. These characters should be seen as what they are; they don't need to be heroes of any sort.”

The first half of the program and part of the second are not in English. Translations of the poetry will be provided. Why does the original language matter and what is the best way to "listen" to singing in a foreign language?

“I am sure that singers have a better way of answering this question, but I think the original text usually fits the music better, in general. There are some parts of songs that wouldn't work if replaced with English words, because it could result in changing words to fit the rhythm of the musical line. Alternatively, it could result in changing up the musical line to fit with the words, and it both of these things could tamper with the overall meaning of the piece. This is just one issue, but I feel it's important. How one listens to it is personal - some people like to read the text beforehand, or just glance at the title to get a sense of what the song will be about. Others like to follow along with the text, as the music is being played, so that they understand each part of it. The latter can be tricky if it's a translation, but it can be rewarding as well.”

How popular is opera and art song in Canada today?

“It has always been popular, and it will always be popular. Opera itself combines many aspects of art - music, visuals (costumes, etc), text/libretto and choreography/staging, and this is appealing to audiences. Art song is popular as well, as it is usually done in a more intimate setting, and the piano plays more of its original role rather than adjusting to orchestral reductions.”

Thank you Petya for sharing your insights. We are all excited about the opportunity to hear you play Nov. 3 at St. Paul’s in Stirling with Peter McGillivray. You will also be returning to Stirling April 27 to perform with cellist Amahl Arulanandam, for a very different program. I look forward to further discussion with you about that and all things musical in upcoming issues of the QSCM newsletter.

Petya Stavreva and Peter McGillivray will be available to answer all your questions about music making at the QSCM after party, following QSCM's Nov. 3, “Romantics and Rascals” performance, 7:30 p.m. at St. Paul's United Church, Stirling. QSCM invites all audience members to join us for chat and food after the concert at Cafe 23 in Stirling. Concert tickets are $15 (subsidized) and available at

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