Violin virtuoso Vasko Vassilev is just as at home on his red Chopper as at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House
A ceiling-high portrait of Vasko by photographer Mario Testino hangs in the reception of Covent Garden's Royal Opera House. And this young, unconventional musician cuts an impressive figure on the world music scene in real life too.
The Bulgarian-born violin prodigy was a star by the age of eight and went on to bag top awards during a worldwide solo performing career in his teens before becoming the Royal Opera's youngest concertmaster in 1994. Not a bad résumé. But where others may have been content to sit back, Vasko continued to expand his career outside of the classical arena, collaborating with a diverse range of artists from Vanessa-Mae to Ronnie Wood, Sting, Paco Peña and Erasure.
Vasko's nonconformist sensibilities extend beyond his music. He is just as likely to be found riding his red Chopper around London as at the Royal Opera House; or sipping cocktails in Sofia, chilling out in a Bulgarian monastery, or starring in his new TV series in China with pianist partner Pamela Nicholson, for that matter.
But despite his unorthodox approach, Vasko is still something of a traditionalist at heart. Given the choice between the music of Bach or the Beatles, he would take Bach - "Father of the Beatles and many more musical children" - every time.
"As musicians with a classical upbringing, Pamela and I (and many others) are more than conscious what a debt we owe to J.S. Bach," says Vasko. "In terms of contrapuntal techniques, he brought us to levels of sophistication that can hardly be improved. The instrumental numbers inspired by Bach which Pamela wrote for Vanessa-Mae and for me have proved to be big hits with the masses, too. I for one have never met any musician who does not like Bach, but I have met some who don't like the Beatles."
With partner, pianist Pamela Richardson, at the Royal Opera House in London, 2002
He has classic tastes too when it comes to relaxing in his native Bulgaria, with monasteries and gastronomy topping the list. He loves mountain trekking and his favourite region is in the south, around Melnik, in the Pirin mountains. "It has a lovely micro-climate and a great choice of wine."
Another favourite pastime when in Bulgaria is watching Pamela "eat herself silly" as she enjoys the pleasures of his country's food. "This takes up quite a lot of time on each of our trips as her list of favourites is rather long. Every day starts with a banitza, then the rest of the days tend to be repeats of aubergine mash, courgette… there is no space to give the whole list!" Recently, he says, the pair have developed a new habit: starting the day with a cocktail from FixMix. "We challenge each other for the most unorthodox mixes, "says Vasko, and enjoy them with coffee on the pavement sofa of Chocolate - "the cutest bar".
Vasko recommends that expatriate friends in Sofia who share his classical tastes donate some money to help renovate the Opera House, which, he says, "sorely needs a make-over". A trip to the Rhodope mountains to experience classic folk music from the Land of Orpheus is also not to be missed. And of course, no trip would be complete without sampling some Bulgarian wine and some of Vasko's favourite dishes - "as music, food and wine go together, as far as I am concerned," he says.
For those with an interest in modern music and alternative culture, Vasko suggests doing yoga to an Orthodox chant in one of Bulgaria's beautiful monasteries. Next up, a club-hopping binge to research the "talent". Finally, he suggests checking out "the 'artistes' who are cleverly engaged also in creating practical furniture in a charming shop (facing The Downtown Hotel) in a little sidestreet. You can't miss it - it has a big red Chinese-style front door". Back on the other side of Europe, in London, where Vasko is now mainly based, he is happy reading the Sunday Times on the patio with a Starbucks coffee, picking at Pamela's granola bar. "Our patio is very private and quiet. We are lucky to have this oasis of peace when we are actually smack in the middle of the city." Otherwise, he enjoys walking their dog Rudy in St. James's Park, their neighbourhood park. "He is a very handsome animal (though I say it myself and I shouldn't)," says Vasko. "He often gets his picture taken in the park by strangers. Once Pamela was approached for his modelling skills by a photographer who was doing a glossy coffee-table book of pictures of London parks. She was so flattered that she gave permission. I was quite cross as I thought she should have negotiated a fee for Rudy or at least a month's supply of Côte de Boeuf for him."
With the Super Girls Ochestra on the St Anastasiya Island in the summer of 2003
And then, of course, there is his prized possession - the red Chopper, a present from Pamela - which he loves riding around London, "beating the congestion charge". "I probably look quite ridiculous on it, as it looks a bit like a child's bike," says Vasko."But cognoscenti of choppers (like me) recognise it and I get lots of envious comments from people. Some say they are too embarrassed to ride one now but admire me for flying the flag for them!"
But with so many projects on the go, it is not often that this Chopper cognoscente has time for such simple pleasures. Given a free schedule for October at Bulgaria's Black Sea coast and 20,000 euros in his pocket, he says it is the open schedule that would be the most attractive prospect. "October is always a busy month for me. For some reason, early autumn all over the world is peak concert season. With an open schedule, I can, for once, plan my own birthday bash. (My birthday is in mid-October.) Normally this planning falls to Pamela. My plan is to throw a big party for my best friends on my birthday and most of the budget will probably go towards their airfares as they come from all over the world. That's okay - I will have to dip into reserves..."
But after his wonderful October, what will he do when he wakes up 20,000 euros poorer on 1 November on the Black Sea? "Mmmmm. I will wake in a panic. I have never ever neglected Pamela on her birthday but a wild October will make this year an exception. I will have to concoct a convincing apology and find a gift which I can describe as one of 'the best things in life which are free' to give to Pamela on her birthday (which is the next day)."
But fantasy schedules aside, in reality Vasko is currently spending much of his time in China, where he and Pamela are launching a new TV show, China World Stars. With the Beijing Olympics coming up in 2008, Vasko says that the show "basically follows our experiences as we search, train and then choose a new showbiz star from no less than ex-Olympic medallists. This is a new format which we developed and are producing with China's official Olympic broadcast channel." They are planning to bring the European version to Bulgaria.
On top of all this, Vasko and Pamela have been in Spain this summer with a touring version of World Classics which they premiered in Sofia, and are releasing as a 'live' DVD." It is a very rich and varied collection of styles which I love both playing and listening to."
And true to form in their own rich and varied collection of styles, Vasko and Pamela will be spending Christmas in something of an unconventional way this year - in China, where they will be observing and judging the contestants for China World Stars. "The contestants go on a performance tour in the first three weeks of December and on Christmas Day itself we will be watching ourselves on screen as the 'touring' episode falls on Christmas Day. It will be fun touring only as a judge while the contestants perform. It means I will have time to shop during the day, instead of worrying about rehearsals and sound-checks. My family and friends will therefore get quite exotic presents from different parts of China," Vasko says.
No doubt his friends and family have come to expect no less from this maverick, globetrotting musician.