Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Next to photography, music is one of the great passions of my life. I make no claim to being proficient — my ability to read sheet music is paltry at best — but any time an opportunity arises for me to immerse myself in its culture, I never hesitate.

I was in Springfield, Illinois sitting at a coffee shop with a good friend of mine in May 2013. In the midst of polite conversation she asks me, almost out of the blue, “What exotic destination are you going to this year?” After a brief pause I realized something.

international chamber music festival - man with a violin

I hadn’t actually made plans to go anywhere yet — at least nowhere which could truthfully be called exotic. This recognition prompted me to reply: “Where did you have in mind?”

That’s when she told me about her position as a voice teacher at the then-upcoming International Chamber Music Festival in Bulgaria. I knew next to nothing about the place, just that it was a former Soviet-ruled destination in Eastern Europe, and the only other country besides Scotland to claim the bagpipe as its national instrument.

The most important thing she said to me, however, was that they were in desperate need of a photographer who would be willing to make the trip. I agreed instantly. How could I refuse?

international chamber music festival - collage

I flew into Sofia International Airport in mid-July to meet the group who would be performing at the festival. Together, we took the three-hour bus ride through the Stara Planina in the Balkan Mountains, arriving in Gabrovo around dinner time. It was overcast. I was unimpressed.

When morning came, preceded by a much-needed night’s sleep, everything seemed to have changed dramatically. The sun was out, casting a golden glow over the imposing grey stone of the Soviet-style buildings. My mood lifted considerably.

The festival director walked us through the busy streets of the city to the concert venue, which was situated in an art gallery on the eastern part of town. From the looks of the outside — an uninviting grey facade with tattered awnings — one would expect the inside to be similarly shabby. So when we stepped inside the corridor to see the marble staircase rising upwards directly in front of us, leading to three stories of exquisite gallery space, my mind was blown. 

The festival brought together musicians of all persuasions, styles, and skill levels from all over the world. For ten days, we gathered together in this unique space. Teachers from the United States, Romania, Russia, Bulgaria, and Hungary taught students from England, Lithuania, Hong Kong, and many more places. The mornings were dedicated to lessons and rehearsals, the afternoons were spent touring the sights of central Bulgaria, and the evenings were reserved for concerts and exhibitions.

international chamber music festival - venessa

For the last night in Gabrovo (the final concert) the Gabrovo Symphony Orchestra joined the festival participants for a night I won’t be able to easily forget. It wasn’t the most prestigious performance, or perhaps not even the highest-quality performance I’ve ever attended, but it was certainly the most genuine — made all the more memorable by the emotion of the students given the privilege to play alongside seasoned professionals.

These young men and women stood before a room packed wall-to-wall with people — many individuals forced to stand because there were no more seats — and performed with a singular passion which brought me to tears.

My experience in Bulgaria, of which there are many more stories, taught me a major lesson: no matter the external appearance of a thing, you can never judge its worth until you’ve seen the inside. And no matter the overall presentation of a musician, you will never understand their soul until you’ve heard them play.