Kalina Dimitrova, Cellist & Bookseller
Kalina & I sit in a corner of the Brick Lane Bookshop, enclosed by the titles of Alexander McCall Smith, Zadie Smith and the Gentle Author. “I like getting lost in books,” she explains, sporadically playing with a set of keys in her hands and her unruly hair. “I enjoy escaping into stories and not wanting to talk to anybody. I read a lot in French and English, usually fiction and some non-fiction too.” One of the first novels she read in English was “An Equal Music” by Vikram Seth. Set in London, it is about an illicit love affair between a pianist and a violinist. The book has particular poignancy because Kalina is not only the manager of the bookshop, she is a musician herself.
As well as being raised on a musical diet of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Schubert and healthy servings of opera, Kalina’s parents often took her to classical music concerts in Sofia. There was a lone Beatles LP which belonged to her father but, aside from this, she listened to very little else other than classical music until her teens. Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata” for the cello became formative and her favourite. At the age of five, when her parents asked whether she would like to learn to play an instrument, Kalina chose the cello – a decision she has never regretted.
She describes the sound as similar to the human voice. “It has a low register and a high register, like a person speaking.” It was also the shape and size of it that she took to, like holding a child. I see this myself, when she is being photographed, posing next to her cello as a mother might stand next to a child in a family portrait.
As a consequence of her decision, Kalina took classes several times a week. She also studied the piano, theory of music, and chamber and orchestra music. She eventually earned herself a place at the only music school in Sofia, named after the Bulgarian composer, Lubomir Pipkov. Bulgaria was still under Communist rule then and its people were experiencing hardship. “I remember we did not have items such as bananas or oranges. Music from the West was difficult to get hold of and there were shortages of milk and water,” she admitted to me.
However, with a French mother, Kalina was lucky because her family were not subject to the same restrictions as others, meaning they were able to travel. Every summer, they went to France to stay with her maternal grandmother, providing Kalina with a sense of the world beyond Bulgaria. While away, she would buy presents for friends back home which they could not find in Sofia. She remembers neighbours considered her family to be privileged, wealthy even. But her parents were working people like others, she says.
Bulgaria, like much of the former USSR, was experiencing dramatic change by the time she became a teenager. Just months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, demonstrators took to the streets of Sofia calling for democratic rule. Kalina was one of these protesters in the throng, marching arm in arm with her father. “People didn’t know anything but Communism,” she says, “We wanted to be able to choose our own government.” The crowds sang revolutionary songs and there was the heady sense of revolt against the status quo.
Yet Kalina was ambivalent as to how much it all concerned her. “At the time, I thought that it didn’t apply to me very much. Remember, I had travelled abroad, but others hadn’t. Many, such as my friends, had never seen mangoes, Cocoa Cola or even people of different ethnicities.”
At the age of eighteen, Kalina had the choice of going to school in France or staying in Sofia. There was no question that she was going to do anything but music. She took her cello to London for audition at the Guildhall. Excitement and nerves were to be her companion. “I had worked so hard for it, practicing for months. I didn’t want to stay in Bulgaria any more – I felt the music scene was stagnant and the political and economic situation was unstable. By then, everyone I studied with was leaving for Germany or America.”
She did a technical exam and played an extract from the First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by Bach and a second piece by Haydn to show off her abilities, all from memory. “The difficult thing about exams is that regardless of how many months you have practiced, in the ten or twenty minutes that you have, it just has to be the most perfect you can make it.” The years of training paid off. The examiners liked her performance and offered her a four-year bachelor’s degree in music.
The course was to be relentless. Kalina discovered there was a lot more competition than she had experienced in Sofia, likening it to being a professional athlete. “You had to train all the hours and improve each time. I used to practise between three to seven hours each day. It was hard work but enjoyable too.”
But this wasn’t all. Alongside studying, Kalina performed concerts professionally for money, and was a member of a quartet playing wedding gigs and background music at events. She also gave private lessons and did babysitting. This was how she came to meet Bookshop Manager, Denise Jones, and get a Saturday job at East Side Books in Whitechapel before it moved to Brick Lane and got a name change.
Today, Kalina is part of a trio with piano and clarinet, playing Brahms, Beethoven, Faure and lesser known composers. They call themselves “Aubert Trio” – Aubert was the name of her maternal French grandfather who used to make bridges for stringed instruments. “I’ve played in various combinations but chamber music is something I really enjoy. In an orchestra, you are one part of a much bigger group without much of a voice but, in a chamber group, you are usually the only cello. You have a voice and can express yourself, you can say what you want.”
Currently, the trio are working with a composer who is writing a piece for them. Kalina does not practice like an athlete anymore but just an hour or so each day. Considering herself no longer to be a full-time musician, she recognises that she appreciates music much more. “Books and music have always worked together for me. I continue to find inspiration in them both.”
Kalina at Brick Lane Bookshop, 166 Brick Lane
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman