‘Why would you want to bring 62 UK pupils and staff to Bulgaria?’ This was the most popular question asked by the media during Whitgift School’s recent tour of the country, and the answer was not challenging. On my first visit over 12 years ago, I fell in love with the warmth of the people; the beautiful, unspoiled countryside; the fabulous organic cuisine; and the rich tradition of classical and folk music.
It was a privilege to meet Ivo Stankov, Director of the Bulgarian Festival of Culture and one of the finest Bulgarian violinists living in London. We have been able to work together to provide a host of possibilities that both enhance the lives of those young musicians living in Bulgaria seeking an opportunity to study in London - through our Whitgift International Music Competition - and develop the cultural diversity of Whitgift School. The Whitgift International Music Competition launched in 2013 and was the first of its kind to offer educational prizes, including several full boarding scholarships to the School. The biennial initiative continues to grow from strength to strength; gaining a reputation as the most educationally-rewarding competition in the UK, with many Bulgarian prize-winners going on to win full scholarships to top London Conservatoires; and now including string, wind and brass categories.
In the summer of 2017, Whitgift took the opportunity to travel to Bulgaria with a group of teachers and student members of Whitgift’s orchestra and choir, a reflection of the School’s appreciation for the Bulgarian schools and organisations that have supported us over the years (a number of our Music staff and pupils having joined us from Bulgaria). The Whitgift tour group was kept very busy; performing a varied programme (filmed by a production company), that was tailored to suit the range of historic and cultural venues across Bulgaria, alongside live interviews for national television. Thankfully, we still managed to squeeze in time for taking in the incredible countryside and landscape, including a climb to the summit of Sofia’s Vitosha Mountain and a visit to Kamchia, via the Black Sea coast, with a stop-off in the town of Veliko Tarnovo.
Our musical extravaganza began with a concert in the First Baptist Church of Sofia, as part of their morning service, featuring the Whitgift Chorale performing an impressive rendition of Schubert’s Mass in G Minor. The following evening, in collaboration with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, we performed at Bulgaria National Hall – another superb venue embodying Bulgaria’s rich heritage.
Former Whitgift pupil, Dan-Iulian Druţac, played the complete Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, contrasting nicely with a performance of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3, 1st movement, by Whitgift’s young Costa Rican violinist, Marlon Barrios Araya, together with the Schubert Mass in G Minor and Verdi’s famous ‘La Forza Del Destino’ Overture. The eager crowd at this opening event was testament to Whitgift’s well-established reputation, and the scene was set for a superb music tour.
Sincere thanks must be given to King Simeon, who kindly invited us to perform in Vrana. This concert in the King’s Residence had to be one of the highlights of the tour, with the beautiful palace gardens full to capacity, and enthusiastic guests enjoying the summery repertoire.
The quality of musicianship and true Whitgift spirit was tested when we moved on to Varna, a popular seaside town, as a number of the party became unwell. Nevertheless, the boys and staff rose to the challenge, showing great commitment and courage in accommodating an adapted programme for the service and concert performance at Varna’s Baptist Church; well received by the full congregation.
Whitgift’s final concert, as part of the Varna International Festival, was a great triumph, with standing ovations received for the soloists, choirs and orchestra - a fitting end to the tour that surpassed expectations. Boys and staff were outstanding ambassadors for Whitgift Music, and we are grateful to have been able to share one of our great passions with such a welcoming country – a tremendous thank you to all our incredibly generous hosts in Bulgaria who made the trip so memorable.
Ms Rosanna Whitfield
Director of Music, Whitgift School