Vassil Petrov: I am a citizen of the world

Being different is not enough, you need to also have talent

The repertoire is drastically different from last year's, as is the list of guest soloists. Nearly 40% of the songs have been changed and the ones that we are bringing back will be performed in new arrangements or by the guest artists. Bruce Johnson, the Mississippi blues singer and actor, will return to the concert, singer Vassil Petrov says in an interview to Europost.

The second edition of the show Sinatra: Vegas is to take place on 12 November. How was the concept for this unprecedented-for-Bulgaria event conceived?

It was 2015, when the world celebrated the 100th anniversary from the birth of Frank Sinatra. Debating the best way to mark the event, we were not particularly excited about the idea of a concert. We did the first show then. It was more biographical. We selected interesting and less documented moments from his life and mixed them with music. We didn't have ballet on stage back then, however. It was just the Big Band, step dancers and other guests. The production was a smashing success. We found that there was tremendous demand for this approach to presenting music, which is a novelty for Bulgaria. So we developed a bigger production, assembled a ballet company, and slowly but surely the cast took shape. We drew inspiration from The Rat Pack Show done in Vegas by Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop - the gentlemen sang, had fun and drank on stage, with the audience witnessing the party up close. We incorporated such moments in the show last year. But our goal is to make it different every year, which is why we are changing things up this time - we have new guests and new costumes for the ballet. We managed to bring together 12 ballerinas (as it turns out, there are no companies of that size in Bulgaria, most go up to six members). Our choreographer, Alex Eneva, was in charge of the casting process, while the costumes were designed by Kremena Halvadjian. There are three costume changes in the script, showcasing glamorous ensembles decorated with genuine feathers. We are currently looking for ostrich feathers from the US or China in order to make the outfits. The ballet dancers will wear magnificent stone-inlaid crowns.

What are some of the new additions to the music programme?

The repertoire is drastically different from last year's, as is the list of guest soloists. Nearly 40% of the songs have been changed and the ones that we are bringing back will be performed in new arrangements or by the guest artists. Bruce Johnson, the Mississippi blues singer and actor, will return to the concert. He has some appearances in big film productions, including alongside Pierce Brosnan. At two metres tall, the African-American singer and former navy seal has a striking presence. Together we will have a duet performance of Old Man River, a song about Mississippi. Our first real encounter is a very interesting story. In December 2016, I had a day off after a concert in London and asked some friends to make a reservation at a jazz club. My preference was for Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club as it is the most famous in Europe, but it was sold out so my friends said, “There is a club called 606 with a single available table left.” We get there and our table is a small thing at the back of the room. At the table next to ours I spy a familiar person of giant stature. I am thinking, “He is an actor, I just cannot remember the name.” I was glad to sit next to him. The next thing I know, he says, “Hello, Vassil!” At first, I thought he was mistaking me for someone else, but then he went on to introduce me to the musicians - “This is Vassil from Bulgaria, he sings in Frank Sinatra's style.” I realised he really knew who I was. As it turned out, we met seven years earlier at a private event in Sofia. The funny thing was that I did not make the connection right away and bragged about how we were there to hear this Mississippi singer. I even asked him what he was doing there, and he simply said, “I am the singer.”

Anyway, back to 12 November, the format of the Sinatra: Vegas 2 show is such that the beginning is dictated by a film theme. In 2017 it was James Bond. While the band was playing the film music live, a short video of me arriving was screened. I showed up in a marvellous retro Packard owned by Bruce Willis in the 1980s. This year, the opening will be more on the action side as it is dedicated to the Mission Impossible series, and I will make my arrival in a helicopter.

You have been viewed as the Bulgarian Sinatra for so long; is this image a heavy mantle to wear?

No, far from it. However, I am not sure to what extent people draw this parallel. In the early 1990s, when I was just starting out, a journalist called me “the Bulgarian Frank Sinatra” for the first time. This is the origin of it all. To be honest, in the 1990s I made a conscious effort to inspire such comparisons. We have similar tone quality as well. The music style is swing-jazz, the first era of jazz, it is when pop music was born too. I like to think of myself as a singer from that school more so than as a Bulgarian clone of Sinatra.

What drew you to jazz?

Poet Zahari Petrov, who was a family friend, had one of the best jazz collections, may God rest his soul. I had never heard jazz before that, I liked the early Genesis. He was the first to introduce me to serious jazz; we even started with the most complex stuff - instrumentals by Jim Hall and Bill Evans, then the bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Then I moved on to vocal jazz - Manhattan Transfer, and I was absolutely captivated by the culture. While attending the National Academy of Music, I always picked jazz standards for my performances. I have never had to do anything else, ever. My calendar is full of gigs. The audience likes me, perhaps because I am different. Of course being different is not enough, you need to also have talent. I am regularly on stage. I have this rock project with songs from the genre, including by Metallica, transformed into jazz pieces. I participated at the 2018 Apollonia Festival of Art with it, together with the Military Big Band of Stara Zagora and part of the city's philharmonic orchestra, and it was my most emotional live performance to date. Next on my schedule is a small Christmas tour offering unusual renditions of Christmas classics accompanied by a symphonic orchestra and a jazz trio.

Have you ever been tempted to move to a country where jazz is more popular?

I am a global citizen. The thought of leaving Bulgaria completely behind has never crossed my mind. But I live where my appearances take me.

What is Vassil Petrov like outside of music?

I have many different sides and all of them are genuine. I love travelling, cinema and painting. I personally make prints and even show them. I am curious about astronomy, the laws of the universe, which has to do with my faith in God. I really like walking too. I try to walk between five and seven kilometres a day; this is my way of staying in shape. I do this even abroad. I remember one time in Frankfurt, I told the conductor that I wanted to exercise and he took me to a country club where we walked by a river. I take my sports clothes everywhere because it helps me keep my energy up and stay fresh without overexerting. It does not matter whether I have company or I am alone. My partner, in life and in business, Margarita, sometimes accompanies me on these walks but always negotiates the terms - an hour, two or three. But she bails out on me whenever I want to climb Cherni Vrah (the highest summit of Mount Vitosha, near Sofia - editor's note).

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Vassil Petrov was born on 30 April 1964 in Sofia. He graduated from the National Academy of Music in 1991 and was the best-selling music artist in Bulgaria for 1992 and 1994. Petrov has given concerts in Tokyo, Moscow, as part of the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, and across Europe, as well as with all the major bands and philharmonic orchestras in Bulgaria. He is also a painter, with exhibitions in Plovdiv, at the Apollonia Festival of Arts, and at the Bulgarian National Radio.

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