Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

Bella Hristova claimed first prize in the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. She’s been a mainstay in New Zealand ever since, and this year returns to judge the 2023 competition. A few days before arriving here for her ninth (!) visit, Bella Zoomed in from New York, where she lives with her husband, composer David Ludwig, and four cats.

What do you remember about 2007?

I remember it being a bit of a whirlwind. I was coming from near Rome, and I couldn’t get on my flight from Rome to, I think, Hong Kong, and I couldn’t go through Sydney. I don’t even know how I got to Auckland. Then I got there and my flight to Queenstown was cancelled because of fog. So I arrived terribly jetlagged.

You were 21 at the time. Looking back, how ready were you?

I stuck to my preparation routine, so I think I was ready. What was really thrilling for me was the following year, the winner’s tour. That showed me I was ready to perform day after day. I think of that as the true beginning of my performing career. For me, it was life changing. I felt invigorated by the different audiences and the music, and I saw the music develop from playing it night after night. And of course, playing with Michael [Houstoun] was so meaningful and inspiring for me then; it still is. At the end of the tour I was exhausted – but I was ready to do it all again.

How is preparing for a competition different to preparing for a concert?

Ideally it shouldn’t be any different. But of course, you have in the back of your mind that you’re being judged against other people and you want to do your best. I started a practise journal at my teacher’s strong suggestion. I had written out in a little book what I was going to practise on which days. That’s just to get the basic technical comfort and proficiency. The technique should be a given. It should be there to serve the music so that in the performance or the competition it should be treated as a performance. That’s the mindset I had preparing for the competition. And to focus on the music and enjoy the music in the moment, and I think I managed to do that in every round.

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Competitions are intense and gruelling. How do you stay loose enough to play to the best of your ability?

I always had a good warm-up routine. That’s also just getting my body warm as much as my fingers. My arms need to be warm to play. Some people can pick up the violin and play, I’m not one of them. If something hurt I would stretch. I didn’t overplay. That was another reason my preparation was so important: so I wouldn’t feel like I was cramming at the end. Mentally, I was so tired I just went hour by hour. I felt very welcomed by the community, the other musicians, my hosts. I felt a warm and loving atmosphere, so the mental part was not stressful.

As a competitor do you study the judges and adjust accordingly? Should the competitors this year study your recording of Bach’s Second Partita?

No, they should not. I think for a music performance to be authentic, there’s a feeling. For example, I could probably tell if someone’s not quite genuine but trying to project what they think the judges want to hear. And the other thing is that music is so subjective that everyone is moved by something different. Even if you guessed one person on the jury right, you might guess wrong on another, so it’s a losing game, and I think the best thing you can do is speak in your voice and if people like it, great, and if not, you did your best. If you feel you went there trying to please somebody and it doesn’t turn out favourably, you lose twice, because you weren’t true to yourself and you lost [laughs].

Then what do young musicians get from competitions?

It’s great practice to have a large amount of repertoire in performance conditions. For example, in February, I’ve got five different concertos in five or six weeks. You have to be able to know you can do that sort of thing and manage your time well. Competitions are a way to test all of that out. If you win, there’s concerts and recognition, tours, recordings, so all of that helps greatly, and the prestige of winning one of these big competitions. But even if the result isn’t favourable, it’s always a learning experience.

What do judges get from competitions? Why do you bother?

I find them hugely inspiring. And also for me to have a personal connection to New Zealand and the Michael Hill, and come back as a jury member is special for me.

What do you listen for?

I listen to be moved and intrigued and interested by a strong opinion, even if it’s not something I would do. In that sense, it’s not good to guess what I might like, because I’m not looking for what I like, I’m looking for conviction. I would love to hear something that I wouldn’t do that I find really convincing. That’s pretty much it.

There are a lot of variables at play in a competition. How rare is it that someone wins a competition and you never hear from them again?

I think it’s less that than instances where the second or third or fifth prize of a competition later grows to develop a big career, and the first-prize winner has less of a career. It’s not usually a disappointment from the first-place winner, it’s more that someone emerges. So maybe they weren’t ready. That’s the thing about competitions. It’s so much about timing, and not necessarily indicative of whether someone’s going to have a career or not, it’s just a start off point that will give you a chance.

Do you have firm advice on how to win a competition?

No. I don’t think anyone should go to a competition to win it. It’s unnecessary pressure and it takes away from the music. And part of it is luck, it’s how you play that night. You have your good nights and your nights that aren’t so good. My own criteria is, as long as I play one phrase I’m really pleased with, it’s a good night [laughs].

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