Rumen Cvetkov’s Sound Travels Far
A TCU-trained viola virtuoso is earning ovations.
Rumen Cvetkov ’06 knew he could excel on the viola from an early age; he was drawn to its melancholic sound.
He grew up in one of Europe’s oldest cities and dazzles audiences by playing his treasured 18th-century viola. But Cvetkov has carved out a thoroughly modern career, one that has seen him perform and teach in nearly three dozen countries.
Music helped define the Cvetkov household. His mother, Mariana, was a classical pianist, and his father, Cvetan, left a legacy as a respected conductor and composer in their hometown of Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Young Rumen picked up the violin after getting one from his parents for his fourth birthday. At age 8 and on the advice of his music school’s director, Cvetkov switched to the viola, a slightly larger instrument.
Cvetkov loved the instrument in part for its more melancholic sound. The violin and viola each have a G, D and A string. But whereas the violin’s fourth string is an E at the upper end of the scale, the viola has a C string at the lower end, making the viola’s sound a fifth lower on the scale than its smaller counterpart.“
From an early age, I was having this feeling that if I kept myself close to the instrument with practice, I could be really, really good,” Cvetkov said. “I dedicated myself completely to the viola from as early as 12.”
At 19, Cvetkov sidestepped Bulgaria’s compulsory two-year military service by heading to Mexico to perform with an orchestra. “I didn’t want to give up the time to play,” he said.
Accompanying him on the adventure was Desislava Marinova Cvetkova ’06, a violinist who would become his wife. The two, who met as children at their full-time music school in Bulgaria, wed in 2009.
The couple first learned of TCU while in Mexico. Cvetkov had a friend studying with Mikhail “Misha” Galaganov, professor of viola and division chair of strings at TCU.
“Rumen has always aspired to have a great career in music,” said Galaganov, who worked with Cvetkov on performance. “As a viola performer, he has excellent technique and an effective stage presence.”
“From an early age, I was having this feeling that if I kept myself close to the instrument with practice, I could be really, really good.”
“Rumen was a hardworking student who had a beautiful sound and was always trying to improve himself and reach the highest level of his potential,” said violinist Betina Pasteknik ’05, a classmate of Cvetkov’s who now performs in Austria’s Vienna Chamber Orchestra as well as in baroque ensembles throughout Europe. As undergraduates, Cvetkov and Pasteknik took to the stage together in chamber ensembles.
While at TCU from 2002 to 2006, Cvetkov and his future wife became enamored with the United States. He performed in festivals in Los Angeles every summer and traveled often to New York. In Texas, he loved everything from the heat to the squirrels.
“And the customer service!” he said. “It’s one of the most important things that America has and shouldn’t lose.” Though he was no great fan of the food (“I’m a food enthusiast, and I think Europe is better”), Cvetkov often found himself impressed with restaurant staffers during his time in Fort Worth.
The course load at TCU, leading to his degree in viola performance, sometimes made him chafe. “Being an undergraduate is really busy with lots of general classes, which I didn’t like a lot,” he said — he’d rather have spent that time on practice.
Toward the end of his undergraduate years, he bought a rare viola, made by Simon Schodler around 1785, from Dallas Symphony Orchestra violist Pamela Askew. The instrument, which he said has “an extremely beautiful sound,” has a name: The Time.
“It was a fortune for me when I was a student, but I was lucky to be able to afford it,” said Cvetkov, who earned a full scholarship to TCU. “It has been with me for some of the most important times in my life. We have an amazing relationship.”
Recently, he acquired a rare viola made in Moscow in 1941, the year that the city was under siege by the Nazis during World War II. Timofey Podgorny (1873-1958), known as the Russian Stradivari, made the instrument, called The Poet. (The name of the Italian Stradivari family still reverberates in the music world, with the violins, violas and cellos they made in the 17th and 18th centuries coveted.)
Cvetkov also has a 100-year-old Italian viola.
“Each instrument is distinct and obviously different, just like people,” Cvetkov said. “I use them differently for different concerts, depending on the piece and depending on the place.”
Soon after beginning graduate school in Chicago, Cvetkov accepted an offer to return to Europe to start his concert career. For the 2008-09 season, he performed as a viola soloist with the Magogo Kamerorkest de Nederlanden, a chamber orchestra in the Netherlands that recently disbanded.
Cvetkov has played under some of the world’s most esteemed conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink and Alan Gilbert. He has traveled to four continents to perform, in venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Germany’s Philharmonie Berlin and the Pallacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Los Angeles Weekly described Cvetkov’s sound as “full, vibrant, carefully balanced and infinitely variable.”
Although no longer performing full time with an orchestra because of his teaching load and his role in organizing festivals, Cvetkov is a regular soloist and section leader for Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich in Switzerland and Spain’s Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.
“In our music world, talent is not enough to be the best,” said wife Cvetkova, who is assistant concertmaster of southeast Spain’s Murcia Symphony Orchestra, for which Cvetkov was a soloist. “Apart from Rumen’s great talent, the strengths that make him such a wonderful musician are his devotion, hard work and constancy.”
In 2019, he released his first CD. Brahms Alliance showcases his love of the Romantic-era style, with his viola music accompanied by pianist Ludmil Angelov.
His follow-up CD debuted in July. Called Melodies, it features music for viola and piano. Included is Tchaikovsky’s “Pezzo Capriccioso,” which he describes as a challenge to play.
CONCERTS AND CLASSROOMS
Cvetkov founded the MurciArt Music Festival, in the south of Spain, in 2017 and recruited Placido Domingo as honorary maestro. As artistic director of the annual festival, most recently held in July 2020, Cvetkov oversaw the musicians’ preparation and performances.
Cvetkov, who speaks Bulgarian, English, Spanish, some Italian plus passable Russian, has also become an in-demand instructor.
In addition to his hectic performance schedule, he serves as a viola professor at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Fontys in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and at New Bulgarian University in Sofia, the capital city of his home country, where he and his family live.
“Teaching students is a really big obligation and a lot of responsibility,” Cvetkov said. “You have to know what to tell them. It’s a very delicate thing.”
“Rumen has always had a passion for performing. … He puts his soul and meaning into every music composition he performs.”
He often gives classes when he visits various institutions, as he did in April 2019 when he returned to TCU for the School of Music’s Guest Artist Recital.
“I did not tell my current students that Rumen was my former student before he came and played because I did not want to brag,” said Galaganov, who noted that Cvetkov spent about 30 minutes one-on-one with each of the students after hearing them play.
“Their progress was made quite visible even with this limited amount of time,” Galaganov said. “The suggestions he gave to each one of my students were suited to them individually. It was a proud-parent moment for me.”
Cvetkov hopes to return to TCU in 2023 and looks forward to visiting — and perhaps performing at — the Van Cliburn Concert Hall, which opened in April.
During the pandemic, Cvetkov spent more time at home with his family, which includes the couple’s two daughters, both budding violinists. Victoria, 8, performed in her first violin concert four years ago. Sofia, 6, followed in her father’s footsteps by also taking up the instrument at age 4. Though their parents offer them guidance and encouragement, the girls take outside lessons.
The children have also become exceptional audience members over the course of their young lives. Their father’s concert schedule, which can fill up a year in advance, sends them all around Europe. Spring and summer are Cvetkov’s busiest times as a performer.
“Rumen has always had a passion for performing,” Galaganov said. “Some people don’t want to do much with the music. They play the notes. But Rumen wants to do something, which makes him more pleasurable to listen to when he performs.
“He puts his soul and meaning into every music composition he performs.”