Bulgarian musicians around the world

The dreams and achievements of a Bulgarian family in Boston

Elena Koleva: "We are moving forward together and this is our greatest achievement"

Photo: private library

Elena Koleva and Plamen Karadonev are the first Bulgarians to become professors in the Piano and Voice departments at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. They left Bulgaria 19 years ago to study jazz in the United States and they shared a dream - to succeed in the homeland of their favourite music genre.

"It's not easy to make such a decision at a time when we already had a successful career," says Elena. “I was a lecturer at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, my class was quite large. As a jazz singer, I was active. Together with Plamen we had a band with which we participated in various festivals and gave concerts. But we decided to take a new path. He was admitted to the Berklee College of Music, I was admitted to the New England Conservatory. We are very happy that we succeeded in this highly competitive environment and moved forward with music. We have been teaching at Berklee for four years now.

In my voice class there are singing students from all over the world - Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Norway, Switzerland, China and others. I learn a lot about their cultures, they give me the energy to go beyond my personal boundaries. I have become a "vibrating" teacher who has developed a sensitivity to different cultures. Together we go through all the vocal styles - opera, musical, folklore, pop, R&B, contemporary jazz... In Bulgaria I received a very good training in piano, solfeggio, music theory and this is now invaluable to me.

In addition to teaching singing, the college hired me to prepare programs for singing classes "a prima vista" for the summer training conducted by the college, as well as a program for online training. Plamen also has many talented piano students.”

The work of both Plamen and Elena is very artistic, they explain. It is associated with many performances, contacts with world-famous musicians who hold in Berkelee the so-called jazz clinics. Among them is Kurt Elling who comes every year, also - Jacob Collier. Dee Dee Bridgewater was in the college a few months ago. At the last closing of the school year, which was conducted online, guests were Cassandra Wilson and John Legend. Most of them are people I've learned from, and it is fascinating to be able to experience that as an artist, Elena says.

"For me, family comes first," the singer admits. "We're moving forward together, and that's our biggest achievement.” When Plamen and Elena settled in the United States, they were accompanied by Martina, their elder daughter who is currently completing her master's degree. Their younger daughter, Simona, was born in Boston. Today she is 14 years old.

"I do dancing and singing, I've participated in several musicals”, says Simona in good Bulgarian. “I dream of singing on Broadway and now I am preparing for it. Dad gives me piano lessons and I study singing with my mom. For four years I attended the Bulgarian school in Boston and studied Bulgarian language, literature as well as mathematics. And my favourite Bulgarian song is Shelter in the Rain from the repertoire of Vasil Petrov."

Simona has several videos with her father who accompanies her on the piano. Among them is the song Better Days, recorded during the lockdown in their home studio and intended for the African-American church, where Plamen is the music director. Among other things, he does not stop composing and recently released his latest project.

"We continue our work with The Fifth Season Quartet, with which we visited Bulgaria a few years ago and gave a lot of concerts”, adds Elena Koleva. “We are in it together with drummer Austin McMahon and jazz harpist Charles Overton who plays incredibly well in uneven beats and this is very important because Plamen constantly uses complex metrics in his original pieces and arrangements. We also work with a real jazz star - Jerry Bergonzi. We are working on a new project which we plan to present with concerts in Europe and, of course, in Bulgaria. We have an invitation from the Arlington Jazz Festival in Boston and on May 31 we will present an online 30-minute program, featuring some of the compositions we are preparing as a duo.“

English Rossitsa Petcova

Photos: private library

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