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"It never crossed my mind to stay here for 30 years"

She was born in Bulgaria but was studying in Switzerland when, in 1992, she received the news that she had been selected for the new orchestra that was to be born in Portugal. She packed her bags and came, without making any plans. Purely for the dream. And she stayed. Thirty years later, violinist Diana Tzonkova is today the oldest member of Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra. We went to talk to her about this journey and about the times when she dreamt of being a ballerina…

Diana Tzonkova

You have been in Portugal since 1992. We guess you could say you’re already part of the furniture in the house…
Yes, yes. I arrived for the foundation of Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra.

But you came on purpose?
Yes, I did. It’s an interesting story that reflects the ambition of this project. At the time, the creator of OML, Miguel Graça Moura, had great ambition. So, the auditions that he organised to create the Orchestra were held a little bit all over Europe. I auditioned, like a lot of other people, and when I was selected, they contacted me and asked if I wanted to come.

And Diana said yes…
Yes, I said yes.

Where were you in 1992?
I was in Switzerland, studying. I was doing my second masterclass. And I won’t hide from you that I was very happy for the invitation, because the project was very attractive. It included concerts, chamber music recitals and also the pedagogical part. All that was included in the contract.

What did you study in Switzerland?
Precisely, Pedagogy and Chamber Music, so it is natural that the invitation interested me. It was just what I wanted to do.

And 30 years lateryou’re still here. Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra is your second home.
It’s true. In the beginning, none of us knew how the project was going to evolve. Nobody had any idea. It never even occurred to me that I would stay here for 30 years. It just happened. Always with some issues, of course, but things began to develop, and here we are 30 years later.

At no point did you think about it?
No, not at all. I didn’t know anything at the time. Nobody knows the future. And I didn’t know either. It was a new opportunity, a new country…

Did you already knew Portugal, even if only as a tourist?
No, I didn’t. It was all new to me. In Switzerland I knew some Portuguese people, who always told me about their country. But I confess that I didn’t have a very profound image of what I was going to find there. I only knew what they told me: that it was a very beautiful country.

How was your adaptation to the country?
It was good. I came with high expectations and I confess that I wasn’t disappointed. Portugal was very calm. The cultural life was being revived. We’re talking about 1992, when the old opera orchestra was closed. It was a time of great cultural expansion, of structural investment in Portugal. It was a good time for a professional musician to come to Portugal.

“We were mostly foreigners”

Tell me a little about OML at that time. It was a smaller orchestra…
Yes, much smaller. Just strings and a few wind instruments: two oboes and two horns. That was it. We were mostly foreigners, who had been recruited from abroad. We all came with great ambition.

We know that music is an universal language. But how did You communicate with each other?
Always in English. In rehearsals and communicating with each other, it was always in English. It was an adventure. I remember we did a lot of concerts at the beginning. They were decentralised concerts, outside Lisbon.

And 30 years later the Orchestra continues to be decentralised, without a venue of its own to play in, but reinforcing its travelling side.
Yes, and that is a constant challenge. But the history of Metropolitana has always been a history of challenges, of difficulties, of turning weakness into strength. The Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra has grown a lot, not only in the artistic part, but also regarding the schools. When we started the pedagogical project, we had no official recognition. The first students were not very young, they were people who wanted to improve their musical skills.

But the orchestra continued to grow, despite the difficulties.
Yes, yes, after a few years more musicians arrived, we added more wind instruments and percussion. It became the closest model to what it is today. Like a symphonieta. And little by little, as the pedagogical process advanced, we started to form student orchestras. Then, the recognition of ANSO turned out to be the most important step for the institution. Because we began to prepare professional musicians for the orchestra itself.

Yes, and the result is clear to see…
Of course, today the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra has many members who were graduated from ANSO. Even conductors.

Even Metropolitana’s Artistic Director, conductor Pedro Neves, was formed at the National Academy of Advanced Orchestral Studies.
That’s exactly right. It’s the evident proof of this growth.

“I am happy in Portugal”

But Metropolitana wasn’t the only one to grow in these 30 years. Diana has also grown…
It’s true, it’s true.

What has changed in you? Besides having improved your professional and artistic skills, what has changed in you? What has Portugal given you in these 30 years?
Enthusiasm. I am always enthusiastic. I really like what I do and that makes me happy in Portugal. In this project, especially in the first years, there was always a lot of space for chamber music and for recitals. The responsibility of preparing that is much greater than just participating as a member of the orchestra. That made me grow, made me study a lot of material.

And as a person, not as a professional, but as a person, who is Diana today?
I am a different woman. I have met many different people, different cultures and philosophies and that is a privilege. So I also benefited from that, of course.

Are you a different Diana today from the one born in Bulgaria?
Yes, yes, very different. So many years have passed.

What memories do you have of that time?
Many, many…

Did you have a happy childhood?
Very happy. I were the only one in the family who was a musician. My parents were engineers, road and bridge engineers. They were both mathematicians. And I had to decide between mathematics and music. And I made my choice, of course.

Was it difficult to make that choice for music in a family of mathematical people?
No, it was not. My choice was always respected by my parents. I was very lucky with that. And I don’t regret this choice.

“My dream was to be a ballerina”

How did this awakening to music, to art come about?
I’m going to tell you something very funny. My dream was to be a ballerina. I loved it. That’s what I wanted to be. But then the teachers told me that I didn’t have the vocation to be a dancer and that it was better to go other way.

And you’ve changed art?
I changed art, yes. I had to. At the time it was a bit difficult, but as I was very young – I must have been five or six years old, it was easier. On top of that, my mother loved music and asked me if I wanted to learn music. And that’s how I found my first teacher, who was an exceptional person.

Did she leave a mark on you?
I stayed with her until I entered professional school. She was someone very important in my life. Even after I entered, she continued to be a friend, a master for me.

Do you remember the first instrument you played?
It was violin. A tiny violin that my mother bought, when she realised that my love for the instrument and this teacher was for real. And I loved it.

Do you feel you were privileged to have had, at that age, your own violin? It certainly wasn’t easy at that time…
You are quite right. But my parents wanted their children to be happy and accomplished and they made many sacrifices in order to achieve our goals.

You spoke about the sacrifice of your parents, but it is also important to say that music also demands from its young practitioners availability, effort, capacity for commitment.
That’s true. This is a very important message that must be passed on to young music students and their parents. It is fundamental to have the desire and to fight for those objectives, for those dreams. I took advantage of all the opportunities I was given to go to workshops, to enter competitions, to win prizes. All this contributed to my professional maturing.

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