Tag Archives: language

Bits of Bulgaria

My good friend Hannah has been living in Bulgaria this year, teaching English in a secondary school. Since I never got around to visiting Hannah while she was doing Peace Corps in Georgia, I decided it was high time I visit her in Bulgaria. She’s finishing up her first year and will stay on next year to work with the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and Debate Tournaments) Foundation, which organizes speech and debate tournaments — modeled on the American format that some of you may have taken part in during high school — around Bulgaria. Anyway, I spent a lovely few days with Hannah both in Sofia, the capital, and in Pravets, the town she’s been living in. What follows are a few cultural observations and a number of photos of my trip.

I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before traveling, other than a few tidbits I gleaned from reading the Wikipedia page and that I have a Bulgarian learner at work. My expectations were based mainly on my experiences living in Ukraine; I wondered how Bulgaria would feel in comparison, especially as it has been part of the EU for 10 years (and Ukraine has not).

Firstly, language: Bulgarian, like Ukrainian, is a Slavic language and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. I felt strangely at home wandering the streets of Sofia and being able to read signs both in Cyrillic and Latin script. I picked up a number of Bulgarian phrases in my few days there and could understand some, too, thanks to my background in Ukrainian. Hannah’s Bulgarian sounds really good after only ten months there.

Sofia felt both like a Ukrainian city — corner shops selling a random assortment of snacks and alcohol, a good deal of chunky Soviet-style architecture — and much more western — an Asian noodle restaurant, many signs in English, and most cafe/restaurant staff speaking English. It was a fascinating contrast for me.

In terms of food, there’s a good deal of international cuisine in Sofia. Bulgarian cuisine features banitsa, a tasty cheese-stuffed filo pastry snack; lots of yogurt; ayran (a salty kefir-like drink); and fresh, colorful salads (that are not covered in mayonnaise!).

Pravets, the town Hannah lives in, is about 60km north of Sofia and has a cozy population of 4,500. Hannah teaches at the language high school, which draws students from around the region. There’s also a big hotel and golf course that bring in some tourism. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. A peaceful spot.


Summer Singing: An “All-Night Vigil”

This month I participated in wrapping up the Crouch End Festival Chorus concert season with two performances of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37, also known as the All-Night Vigil (or Всенощное бдение, for those of you versed in Russian).

Composed in 1915, Rachmaninov’s Vespers is a monumental work: 15 movements of Russian Orthodox texts set a cappella with lots of lush, thick harmonies. As our director DT pointed out, recordings of the piece can last anywhere from 50 to 75 minutes, depending on who is conducting. DT opted for us to sing a speedier rendition, clocking in at 50-53 minutes.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov kept the texts in an older form of Russian, which was more phonetic than modern Russian. For example, in today’s Russian the letter о would be pronounced as а after some consonants. In the Vespers text, the о‘s remain о‘s. (Side note: in our first rehearsal of the Vespers, my brain got quite confused because I could read both the Cyrillic and transliterated texts so didn’t know where to look. I opted to cross out the English transliteration and read the Cyrillic instead. I had to put in some pronunciation reminders for myself, though, since even the older Russian is less phonetic than Ukrainian. It was fun to brush off my Cyrillic-reading skills.)

Language digression aside, the Vespers are much harder to sing than they sound. Lots of hairpin swells, dynamic changes, and sopranos having to sing high and ppp — not to mention the Russian. All those elements together meant I didn’t enjoy singing the piece quite as much as I thought I would, but it was certainly a good challenge and I did like singing in Russian. Have a listen while you’re reading the rest of this post:

We bookended the Vespers with four short a cappella works: Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella, de Victoria’s O quam gloriosum, Gabrieli’s Jubilate deo, and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 (total musical orgasm — just have a listen below — also that guy is impressive).

We performed this musical program twice: first at Southwark Cathedral in London (where we sang summer concert #1 last year) and then at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Southwark has great acoustics, but the concert there was tough: it was a Friday evening, so everyone was tired from the workweek; the cathedral was way too warm; there were a lot of us positioned close together but facing out (naturally), which made it hard to hear the other parts.

The concert in St. John’s Chapel was completely different: it’s smaller than Southwark and has incredible acoustics — probably the best I’ve ever experienced as a singer. We performed in a horseshoe shape, which made it easier to hear the other parts. It was also much cooler. There’s a benefit to performing the same program twice (and the second time on a Saturday) — we were all more rested and relaxed, and it was inspiring to sing in such a beautiful and resonant space.

The St. John’s audience was very appreciative and the Rachmaninov harmonies sounded glorious. F said it was his second favorite concert of ours, after February’s Monteverdi Vespers. I’m glad to have finished the concert season on a high note (ha!). Stay tuned for the new concert season…

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