Toma Iliev: About making music historically relevant


February 2015


Last fall I attended a chamber music concert of the Juilliard415 Ensemble. Founded in 2009, Juilliard415 is Juilliard School’s principal period-instrument ensemble. I was struck by what I saw and heard that evening. I was struck by how much fun it seemed to be to play music. There was no pretention, no showing-off, no self-aggrandizing quest. Everyone was playing to support the music. Everyone was having a chance to express something, a chance to make the whole even more personal, more beautiful: the music for everyone, everyone for the music. Music was presented the way it should always be: meaningful, organic and alive. To get a little peek into the historical performance world, in the days following the performance I met with Toma Iliev, a historical performance student at Juilliard.


To have played baroque music in a historical performance perspective myself, I would say that the most seductive part of it comes from the freedom of expression it gives. In a way, baroque music is very democratic: the opinion of each performer matters. Very often baroque ensembles don’t even have a conductor, which leaves each performer with a lot of freedom. “I found that baroque musicians are more accepting of what the individual has to say,” comments Iliev. “That’s something very valuable. It makes you very happy to be part of it, to be contributing with your ideas instead of just following.”


The reason of this freedom is that, with historical performance, the musicians have to answer all the questions. Iliev believes that the most important thing for a historical performer is the urge to learn. It’s about taking the step yourself, going out there, reading and thinking. A lot of information on historical performance is missing or contradictory. Therefore one has to think critically and make choices. The first musicians to take an interest in historical performance in the 60’s and 70’s didn’t have anyone to teach them. They had to find their way by themselves. They would read books and treaties and make decisions according to what connected best with their musical intuition. Two musicians would read the same book but understand it in two different ways. “We have all these amazing musicians playing in so many different ways and that I think is the best thing about historical performance. It’s fantastic that we have so many different opinions from all these different people. There is so much questioning that goes with historical performance, so much initiative that you can take.”


Iliev says he was lucky that historical performance came to him at the right time. He feels that you have to be at a certain age and in a certain state of mind to accept and embrace it. “I am not saying that modern music is not worth doing or rewarding. But now that I play baroque I never have those times of struggle as to know what to do with a piece. All that time I have spent on practicing my shifts on the modern instrument I would rather spend it on learning style. Baroque music requires such sensitivity and sense of taste. Baroque music leaves you more space for your mood. It moves. As a musician I want to move people. I want to have people leave with an emotion. I went through a process that tells me that what I am doing now is the right way for me, the only way.”  


There is still a bit of prejudice against the movement that began in the late 60’s. It’s difficult to convince people that’s it’s a good cause and to find funding. It’s difficult because people are not familiar with it. Historical performance is not just about playing on period-instruments but about knowledge. Today there are groups who started as baroque groups but are moving further and further up in the repertoire. They are bringing that historically informed movement into music closer to us in terms of time. Things are changing. A lot of people are trying to bring the baroque world and the “modern” classical world together. “There is this wall that separates the modern musicians from historical performers and I think it’s not good for our art to be separated,” says Iliev. “In the end we are all doing what music asks us to do. It’s not about us so much it’s about music.”


For Iliev it makes sense to be playing baroque music and in a historically informed way. “Historical performance is not so much about how they did things back then but about how close can we get and how much can we challenge ourselves to go further in this game. It’s really a game. We know there is no perfection, we know we can’t do things exactly how they did then but we can get as close as possible. So why not do that: why not make music historically relevant. There is something more to music, something outside of that frame.”