born Dobrich, Bulgaria February 1961
died Perth, Western Australia June 2009
Andrey Popov grew up in a home filled with music. On both sides of the family there were many steeped in the music tradition. As many as fifteen cousins on his mother’s side were instrumentalists, some on violin, others on guitar or mandolin. A grandfather played the harmonium at weddings and public gatherings. Both Mr Popov’s mother Mrs Ljuba Popova and her brother became skilled accordionists.
On the paternal side of the family were many gifted singers. A great-grandfather sang in the choir of the Alexander Nevsky church in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Priests, too, figure prominently on the family tree, including the so-called Red Priest described as a modern Bulgarian Robin Hood who ended his life on the gallows. He is not be confused with that even more famous Red Priest, the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.
As a child, little Andrey would accompany a neighbourhood friend to the latter’s piano lessons during which the little boy would pay the closest attention to what his friend’s teacher was saying, soaking up what he heard via a form of musical osmosis. Real piano lessons followed with a local who had made good in the outside world. Little Andrey thrived. Later, his progress at Varna Specialist Secondary Music School was so impressive that he was offered a scholarship to study in Poland – but his parents declined this offer to their gifted son.
As the boy’s well educated and relatively well-off parents were considered “unreliable” by the Bulgarian communist regime, the young man was obliged to serve his compulsory military service at one of the harshest training camps in Bulgaria. And it was there that two fingers were broken while being trained to use a Kalashnikov firearm. This injury, surely as devastating psychologically as painful physically, effectively blocked his admission to the Sofia Conservatorium of Music. This was a huge blow for a young man nurturing hopes of a concert career. Instead, he enrolled in the Plovdiv Institute of Musical Pedagogy and after graduation he returned to his home town to head the Children’s School of Music.
Hugely successful as a teacher in Dobrich, many of his students went on to become laureates of competitions at home and further afield, some going on to distinguished careers as performers. All the while, Andrey maintained a career as a concert pianist, often giving recitals with his violinist wife at hotels and piano bars in the Black Sea resort town of Albena. Both in Bulgaria and, later in Australia, he would receive letters from former students telling of their many successes.
Political and economic upheavals from 1988 resulted in the Dobrich school closing due to lack of funding, and Popov was out of a job. Opening a private teaching practice did not appeal so he came to Australia alone, his wife choosing to remain in Bulgaria.
A very new kind of musical life began for Andrey Popov in Western Australia where, for the first time, he ventured into the world of dance as a rehearsal pianist, a calling to which he shaped like fine wine to a goblet.
Leading ballet teacher and examiner, Diana de Vos, recalled her first meeting with Popov in 1997 when, with that other fine ballet instructor Leslie Hutchinson, she auditioned Popov for a post accompanying classes at the Terpsichore Dance Centre. “His piano skills were first class; he was a brilliant addition to our staff”, she recalled. “His music was quite inspirational, affecting us all emotionally. He knew, almost instinctively, what was required.”
Serendipitously, Popov had found a new, hitherto unexplored, path in music, going on to work at the Graduate College of Dance and the W.A.Academy of Performing Arts. Heather Baskerville, regional co-ordinator Royal Academy of Dance, recalls the pleasure his playing gave to so many, working, inter alia, for the Cecchetti Ballet Society and the many activities of the Royal Academy of Dance. She also remarked how, on more formal ballet occasions, Popov would routinely dress “in a black dinner suit to help lift the mood of the occasion and in doing so elevated, yet calmed, the otherwise nervous candidates.”
One of many amusing anecdotes concerned the intense nervousness of a student about to go on stage. She asked for something to calm her to which Popov responded by giving her two small white tablets which she was told to suck very slowly as she played. The performance was brilliant and the student, gushing in her thanks for the pills which had soothed her nerves, asked her teacher: “What were those marvellous tranquillisers?” Pokerfaced, he told her “Tic Tac, peppermint flavour”.
His was an idiosyncratic sense of humour, his responses invariably delivered dead-pan. Heather Baskerville recalls seeing Popov clutching a number of coloured pencils. She enquired what they were for. “You’ve heard of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?”, he asked. “Well, I am writing Popov’s Unstarted Symphony”.
Yet another anecdote gleefully recounted concerned a fellow dance repetiteur who routinely used generous amounts of hand cream before playing the piano. The class was followed by one Popov was to play for. He seated himself at the keyboard, played for a moment or two on the now-slippery keys before exclaiming: “Look how lucky I am. I am playing in yogurt”.
Many of Popov’s friends in the dance world talk of his enterprising cooking skills.
Parties hosted by Popov and his mother Ljuba were, by all accounts, memorable events – and for all the right reasons. Fascinated by Asian spices, he would often experiment with this or that combination of flavours to tempt dinner guests.
The last years were blighted by increasingly serious illness, much of it the result of heavy smoking, an addiction he was unable to overcome. There were stays in hospital and long periods when work was impossible. Friends rallied around the household in Bedford. There seemed a visible improvement. Then, unexpectedly, there was a heart seizure that proved fatal. The good die far too young.
At the funeral service, there was a touching reminder of Andrey Popov’s artistry as mourners listened to a recording he had made of selections from the ballet repertoire.
Andrey Popov is survived by his mother Mrs Ljuba Popova and a brother in Sofia.
Neville Cohn Copyright 2009