The room in which I’m meeting Nayden Todorov, Director of the Sofia Philharmonic, isn’t exactly a typical interview venue. We’re at one end of a long table in a substantial conference room in the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture: that’s because, in addition to his normal duties, Todorov is serving a term as his country’s Culture Minister. It’s an appointment he describes as “quite a crazy experience. First of all, I’m not a politician. I hate politicians. But I have been able to do one or two things that I think were good for the arts in Bulgaria.”

Nayden Todorov
© Rudy Bezhev

I ask about the state of classical music in Bulgaria. The picture is mixed: “The financial situation is not as wonderful as it used to be. In the past, there were mostly state and some city orchestras. The good part was that the musicians had a very good standard of living; the bad part was that the state was controlling absolutely everything. Today, it’s no longer like that: there’s complete autonomy.” But with finances tightening, many orchestras have merged or disappeared altogether, and he’s conscious of changing habits of listeners: “People are thinking differently today, so classical music also has to think differently in order to preserve the audience and to grow it.”

Around 13 years ago, the Ministry of Culture changed the subsidy for orchestras from a fixed annual amount to a system of matched funding, whereby the state subsidy is in proportion to the audience size. That’s been problematic (“something very crazy, in my opinion”). On the one hand, it’s encouraged orchestra directors to think harder about how to get audiences into the concert hall, which has been particularly important after the pandemic. However, there’s been an unintended consequence: a proliferation of concerts playing the latest pop singles. “Crossover concerts are something very beautiful, but they have to be done once or twice in a year, not all the time”.

Nayden Todorov conducting the Sofia Philharmonic in Mozart's Requiem
© Viktoria Vucheva

Todorov’s approach to constructing a season is systematic. “Let’s start with the artists. I do polls with the audience every year, asking them ‘who do you want to listen to’. Secondly, I do the same poll with the orchestra, but also, after each concert, I ask ‘do you want to work with this one again, or not’. The third thing is to check the artists in the programmes of different concert halls and orchestras in the world. The artists that I can see in most programmes in most seasons are the ones I want to present to the Bulgarian audience.” It amuses him that when he started doing these polls, the audience always named artists from the last century; he’s convinced that his mission is to present them with the musicians of today.

I point out that there are a lot of elderly conductors who are still very busy. Would his audience prefer, I ask, to be seeing Blomstedt or Barenboim, or the latest talents like Klaus Mäkelä or Tarmo Peltokoski? “In our audience, we have both. We have people who are nostalgic about the past, and we also see the younger generation who want to see those that are starting now. It’s easy to see in the hall – they’re totally different audiences.” Bulgaria Hall seats 1,200 and generally fills to around 80% of capacity. Other orchestras are doing less well, and that’s what prompts symphonic concerts with music by the likes of Queen, Abba or Deep Purple. Back in the 1960s, he tells me, Deep Purple’s keyboard player John Lord wrote a concerto for them to play with the LSO. “It’s a good work, but they had trouble finding a conductor. There’s a video recording of the concert, and you can see that neither Deep Purple or the orchestra are happy: they’re both good, but they don’t belong together.”

Nayden Todorov
© Viktoria Vucheva

His approach to presenting new or little known repertoire is simple: go for a famous artist. If he’s presenting music the audience doesn’t know, he’ll be sure to feature a soloist or conductor who is well known to everyone. And like many orchestras, he will smuggle a new work into a concert with more familiar pieces. “Five years ago, I did a series of six concerts with only new Bulgarian music. We were in trouble with the audience and I stopped doing that. Now, when I ask a composer to write a new work, I put this work together with Rachmaninov, Brahms, Gershwin or some other composer that’s known to the audience, so they come for what they know and hear the other one.”

There are surprises. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a close friend of Todorov’s and he was desperate to bring her to Sofia. After considerable persuasion (and much to her agent’s annoyance) she agreed to come, choosing to perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Since little twelve-tone music had been played in Bulgaria in the previous 20 years, Todorov was expecting a disaster, but in the event, the orchestra loved the piece and the audience reaction was incredible.

Todorov admits that he doesn’t always get all the artists he wants, but you wouldn’t know it from the roster for the 2023–24 season: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian (“a fantastic violinist and, by the way, a fantastic conductor, which was a surprise for me”), Christoph Eschenbach, Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, Midori, Gautier Capuçon, Simon Trpčeski, Diana Damrau, Bryn Terfel... The list goes on.

Nayden Todorov and soloist Francesca Dego
© Viktoria Vucheva

As well as directing the orchestra’s administration and programming, Todorov frequently conducts the orchestra. At the age of 16, he founded a youth orchestra in Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second city), with which he toured extensively. At 26, he headed up both the Philharmonic Orchestra and the opera house in Plovdiv. In the years since, he has been a frequent guest in the concert halls and opera houses of Europe. Conducting opera and symphonic concerts is very different, he tells me. “Conducting opera means being able to compromise: you may have your own ideas, but in the end, you have to follow the singers and the ideas of the stage director. So it’s not always possible to do what you think is right. Working on symphonic concerts is different: there, the conductor is king.”

What kind of conductor is he, I ask: dictatorial? collegiate? obsessively detail-conscious? “For sure, I’m not the dictator type. During rehearsal, I put forward the ideas I believe in and I try really hard to convince the orchestra. But after rehearsals, I’m ready to talk with everyone if they have different ideas: maybe someone has something better in mind than what I do. It has happened quite a few times. Something that conductors have to understand, especially young conductors, is that many of the musicians of the orchestra have worked with a large number of different conductors, some of them really great, so they’ve seen a lot.”

Do they get enough rehearsal time? “I don’t think the conductor has been born who has enough rehearsal time in their life. But let me tell you an opinion which people are surprised to hear. I believe that artists in the past made better music than today. The reason is that they were not as good musicians. Today, the musicians are much technically better; because they’re so good, they don’t need so much time to learn the notes: British orchestras sometimes do a piece without rehearsal. They play the notes perfectly, but actually, they never learn what the musician sitting next to them thinks about this music, how they want to perform it. They’re doing it together, but they don’t feel it together.”

The Sofia Philharmonic, he says, have pieces that they know well – sometimes so well that they don’t really need a conductor. Other composers are less known in Sofia and their music can be quite problematic. “But I always love to do such works, ones that they don’t know. Because I provoke them, and I love to provoke musicians”. Still, even when it’s a piece that the orchestra knows how to play with their eyes shut, a conductor can surprise. Two years ago, Eschenbach came to Sofia to conduct Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Todorov was certain he knew how his orchestra would sound, but when he went to the concert, he couldn’t believe his ears: it came across exactly the way Todorov had heard Eschenbach conduct the Orchestre de Paris some years previously. “I still don’t know how he did it. I didn’t expect him to be able to change totally the way the orchestra played.”

When Todorov isn’t running the orchestra or a government ministry, he is presenting Bulgarian National Television’s “In Concert with BNT2”. (He also writes fiction: his collection of short stories Whiff of Angels, published in 2021, was mostly written on trains between conducting engagements.) What’s it like being that kind of polymath?

“It’s like being a doctor. There are doctors who can see what is your illness and know where to send you. And there are other doctors who can do only one thing – but for this thing, they are the best in the world. I presume that the best is when you’re really focused on one thing, but I’m not like that. I used to dream, when I was younger, that I could clone myself into many different people, with the same mind, so that I could do everything I want to do. Unfortunately, life isn’t long enough to do this.”

He was asked to extend his term as minister, but refused: he just doesn’t consider himself a politician. But he has one thing in common with the most effective politicians: an exuberance that infects everyone around him. And that, I suspect, is as useful in music as it is in politics.

See all our listings for the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra 2023–24.

This interview was sponsored by the Sofia Philharmonic.