We Haven’t Been Here Before
by Jason D. Ham
If someone had told me a year ago that I would be on a plane returning from giving the first-ever solo euphonium recitals in Bulgaria and Macedonia, I would have told you that the flight to Mars had just departed, and you had missed your flight. I could not have imagined the experiences that two weeks in Eastern Europe brought me. Memories of my journey will always remind me of the unique opportunity I had to share the euphonium’s wonderful sound with these fascinating cultures.
Jason and Boyan performing on July 18th in Skopje, Macedonia
I find it appropriate to share these experiences with the readers of the ITEA Journal , not for the purpose of lauding my adventures before this readership, but rather to support the proposition that the euphonium continues to grow rapidly on a global scale. The euphonium is doing better than ever in terms of its growth, not only in places where it is already established, but also in places in which it has only recently been introduced. We have the opportunity to live during a time in which we can witness the first appearances of the euphonium in some of the world’s less diverse musical landscapes. Too often, however, the pioneers who go out into the world and accomplish ground-breaking performances on both the tuba and the euphonium let those events be known only on personal websites and other limited circulations. While this is of some benefit, the ITEA Journal is the best place to tell of adventures such as the one I relate here. Hopefully posterity benefits the most from the relaying of these premiere performances.
This trip materialized from the suggestion of Boyan Kolarov, a pianist I have had the pleasure of working with in six performances since our first collaboration at the University of South Florida in November 2004. A native Bulgarian, Boyan started his second Master’s Degree at the USF School of music last August. At 26 years of age, he is one of the finest accompanists with whom I have ever worked and is a rising piano star in the USA. While on a recital tour of Ohio and Kentucky in January 2005, Boyan suggested that we perform in Bulgaria and Macedonia the following summer. It sounded like a great idea, but, in a place where the euphonium had never been considered as an instrument for solo performance, could it happen?
Jason and Boyan do a little shopping and goofing off before the performance in Skopje
It could. As I got on the plane in New York City on July 7, 2005, a wave of thoughts filled my mind. The closest I’d ever been to Bulgaria or Macedonia was ITEC 2004 in Hungary, and that was still an hour and a half plane ride from the first location of this three-city tour of the Balkans. Even greater, while I knew I was heading to a land where I couldn’t understand the spoken language, would the language of the euphonium be understood to them? Would I convey the music in a way that they found understandable? I was filled with curiosity for what lay ahead of me, and many other questions ran through my mind.
After a three-day side trip to Budapest to see ITEC 2004 host Janos Mazura and perform at the Hungarian Baptist Church of Budapest, it was on to Sofia, Bulgaria. Arriving in the rain around 2:00 am on Tuesday morning, July 12, I was met by Boyan and his girlfriend, Gordana Kekenovska. Their welcome was enthusiastic, especially at a time of night when most people are bleary-eyed at best. During the ride to the Kolarov home, I realized that many more Sofians kept late hours, as the bars and restaurants still appeared full. Neither time nor rain could keep the people of Sofia indoors in the middle of a Tuesday night! Even more surprising, Boyan’s father and mother were up and waiting for my arrival to their home, along with the very intimidating family dog, Cara! Far beyond my expectations, at 3:00 in the morning, I sat down to a meal in the Kolarov home. Little did I know that this would define the hospitality that I would experience over the next several days.
Boyan Kolarov, Jason Ham, and Gordana Kekenovska (tour manager)
Having had the chance to interact with the Kolarovs in their home over several days, rehearsing with Boyan in the interim, it was time for the first of three recitals we would give over five days starting on Thursday, July 14. That night, in Sofia, I walked into the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria and was surprised to find over 100 people in the audience. Considering that 95% of them had never seen or heard of the euphonium, it was an amazing attendance! More surprising, several of the staff of Bulgarian National Radio had come to record the concert for a Saturday afternoon broadcast.
Jason and Boyan give an interview for Bulgarian National Radio after the July 14th performance in Sofia
Pleased with the performance, I mingled with the audience after the concert. I quickly discovered that in addition to Boyan’s family and friends that had come to the performance, many of the faculty and staff of the Bulgarian State Academy of Music and members of the Sofian Philharmonic Orchestra had also been in attendance. As they congratulated me on the performance, nearly all of them told me that it was their desire that I return to Sofia for more performances as soon as possible.
The next day, on July 15, I found myself spending my birthday on a cramped, six-hour bus ride through western Bulgaria on the way to meet Gordana’s family in Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje. The most interesting bus ride I’ve ever been on, we dodged cattle in opposing lanes and nearly ran off the road several times! Add to this an intense, three-hour inspection at the Macedonian border (what’s this American doing here, and what’s this metal thing in the black bag, by the way?), and you can imagine our relief when we found ourselves in Skopje. Boyan’s parents had never met the Kekenovskas (Gordana’s parents), so it was a lot of fun to witness this first meeting between the two families at the bus terminal. A short time later, we joined the other members of Gordana’s family at their home in the suburbs of Skopje. To my surprise, as we sat down to dinner, out came a chocolate cake, with the number 27 lit up by two huge candles on top. What an unbelievable experience it is to celebrate your birthday in a place that you’ve never been before, especially with people who sing “Happy Birthday” (in English!) with a thick Balkan accent!
The Kolarovs and Kekenovskas in front of Daut Pasha Amam
The next night, July 16, was our first performance in Macedonia, in a small town named Bitola, located on the southern border with Greece. A much less publicized event than the performance in Sofia (and the upcoming performance in Skopje), the attendance at this event was far lower than what we had seen two nights before. Even so, we were met with the same enthusiasm that we had seen in Bulgaria, and we again departed the hall with great praise ringing in our ears.
Our time in Skopje was the climax of the tour. As part of the Skopje Summer Music Festival, our July 18 performance was publicized as one of the more unique presentations among the plethora of local and international artists. Just as I had experienced in Bulgaria, the hospitality in Skopje was equally as humbling. The festival had placed us in the official guesthouse of the city of Skopje, situated immediately adjacent to the residences of the Macedonian Prime Minister and the Vice President.
The performance on July 18 was part of the largest festival of the arts in Skopje. Only the Ohrid Festival, located on Macedonia’s western border with Albania, rivals the Skopje Summer Music Festival. That night, when Boyan and I began to play, the significance of this performance became clear. Not only had a standing room only audience arrived to hear us, but Macedonian Public Television had also come to the sweltering hall to record our performance for national broadcast.
Silently telling of an amazing history, the venue itself, named Daut Pasha Amam, had served as the royal bath of one of Macedonia’s most influential leaders. Constructed in the 1500s but not fully restored until 1951, its thirteen-dome roof is easily recognizable in Skopje. The fifteen rooms of this structure continue to be a home for great music and art today. For our performance, this wonderful old hall was filled with many of Macedonia’s best musicians, prominent government officials, and members of the staff of the American Embassy. Boyan and I responded with our best performance of the week.
Returning to Sofia on July19, it was time to prepare to return home and reflect on what had taken place. A week before, I could not have imagined that, in a place where so many different cultures, religions, and ideas meet, my perspective of the acceptance of the euphonium as a significant musical instrument would be so broadened. I could have never envisioned that as I left for home, I would leave behind so many new friends.
It is good to know that when I return to the Balkans, I’ll be returning to old friends.
For my full travel journal of Eastern Europe, visit my website at www.jasondham.com.