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Prof. Stefan Popov about life, his students and the joy of music

Photo: private library

A brilliant performer and also abeloved and dedicated teacher, Prof. Stefan Popov is one of the most famous names in the world of classical music. For the past four decades he has taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and before that, until 1977, in the United States, at Boston University and England Conservatoire, where he headed the cello department. He has won awards from the most renowned instrumental competitions around the world, and in 2008 was awarded the title of Chevalier du violoncelle (Knight of the Cello) by the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Centre at the University of Indiana.

He says that from an early age he would receive unsolicited and unexpected gifts from life: "Even if I make every possible effort, something different always happens from what I would expect. And it's always for the best."

Born on April 4, 1940 in Lom, a relatively small town located on the banks of the Danube, he had been playing the piano since he was a child. When he was 12 years old, Yordan Gavrilov, a prominent Bulgarian violinist and pedagogue, insisted that he started cello lessons to fill a vacant spot in the local orchestra. Soon the boy's talent impressed everyone and the family decided to send him to Sofia. At the age of 14 he was admitted to the Boarding School for Gifted Children (which existed for 6 years), later he graduated from the National Music School. First he was in the class of Svyatoslav Knushevitsky, then continued with the great Mstislav Rostropovich. "I am grateful to all my teachers, but he is the person who has most influenced and shaped my musical worldview," says Prof. Popov.

In 1966, as a finalist in the Tchaikovsky International Competition, he won a medal and an award from the Union of Soviet Composers for performing Russian music.

He has recorded numerous CDs over the years. Among them is his author's adaptation for cello of the violin concerto by Beethoven, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the first performance of the work. He says he did this to compensate in part for the fact that the genius composer did not write a cello concerto.


Stefan Popov's 80th birthday has also become another proof of the "unexpected gifts" he has the privilege of receiving. According to the plans, the cellist had to celebrate his anniversary in the spring of 2020, with a concert in the hall at 5 Oborishte Street in central Sofia. The building there once housed the Boarding School for Gifted Children (later the National Music School), there was also his first solo recital. Due to the emergency measures around the world, the event was postponed, but Prof. Popov still gave a concert in this hall. It opened the Popov International Cello Festival and Academy a few days ago, whose program included master classes led by Michel Strauss - France, Kyrill Rodin - Russia and the patron of the festival. This international concert was held only only hours before the second lockdown in Bulgaria started.

"I wanted to give a concert in April, when it's my birthday," Prof. Popov told Radio Bulgaria. “We know what happened to our plans - all concerts, performances, etc. were cancelled, and the artists suffered a lot. My student, Natalie Neykova, decided that we should definitely make the festival, for which I have had an idea for a long time, she also became its artistic director. A project was prepared and funded by the Ministry of Culture. Due to the epidemic, New Bulgarian University, which was supposed to be a co-organizer, was closed. Vasil Karkelanov, the main engine of the festival, found a very nice hall in a gallery in Sofia. He filmed the concerts, provided online broadcasting, etc. I wanted the participants to get a broader view of contemporary cello art, so I invited representatives of two different schools - Russian and French. At the last moment, it turned out that Rodin could not travel and conducted the lessons online. I also taught live and through different platforms. There were students from Serbia, Mexico, Germany, Bulgaria… Among the youngest were extremely talented Bulgarian children, for whom this was a great event. Probably in 20 years they will remember how their career started.

Prof. Popov is happy and proud of his three sons, of his grown-up alumni scattered around the world, of his current students at Guildhall, although in recent years he has worked with a smaller class. He is also energized and inspired by the numerous master classes he has had around the world and which he has been holding in Bulgaria for 30 years. Thanks to them, young cellists from all over the world have had the opportunity to discover charming Bulgarian places - the revival period town of Tryavna, the beautiful Vitosha mountain, Burgas and the sea, his native Lom, where he restored the family house and every year one of the master classes is held there. Among the most important values ​​for the professor are non-violence and ordinary human joy. And when asked if there is anything he still wants to give to his students, he answers: “Yes! I want to convince them that they should play with ease. It is very important not to have tension, but joy and lightness. This prolongs your professional life and the joy of performing your favorite music, regardless of age.

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