Vlatko Stefanovski and Theodosii Spassov Hungarian House of New York New York, NY October 23, 2022
Both guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski and kavalist Theodosii Spassov are masterful players and likeminded souls. Even though they come from seemingly different areas of interest and are like two distant galaxies with their colorful and storied careers, they share a lot in common. But they are bonded and have been since their first endeavor together, the Balkan Horses band in 2001, by affection for jazz, folk, classical and avant music alike. These two seemingly different musicians hit a remarkable and effortless rapport on a Sunday night at the Hungarian House in New York as part of their US/Canada fall tour.
The tour was twice postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and when the virus first hit in 2020 and borders were closed, Stefanovski and Spassov opened the Skopje Jazz Festival in October sending positive and uplifting vibes at a time when large gatherings of any kind were seen as dangerous and the atmosphere was grim. They reminded people how uplifting music can be and how healing live music can be. Something similar happened at the Hungarian House when the duo played a set predominantly based on Macedonian folk songs and several selections from both artists' solo oeuvres.
This meeting of two masters of their respective realms was a spine-tingling triumph. In the pantheon of guitarists, the name Vlatko Stefanovski towers high above. He is renowned for his high-energy, virtuoso antics as well as memorable and gentle melodies that have thrilled crowds for more than four decades. Spassov has spent that time rewriting the folk-jazz rule book, along the way acquiring an unprecedented virtuosity on his flute-like instrument and branching out into colorful collaborations with composer Ennio Morricone, percussionist Trilok Gurtu and pianist Milcho Leviev, to name but a few.
But it takes more than virtuosity for this music to send shivers down someone's spine. It takes generosity and vision, impeccable taste and a willingness to take risks. Both artists have long delighted in crossing stylistic boundaries and they delivered a set of deeply engaging, organically realized songs that perfectly balanced their respective jazz and folk skills. Most of the songs in their repertoire were classics, but they were used as vehicles for further melodic explorations and boundary pushing as both artists were able to forge a compelling and new language. The set kicked off with "Makedonsko Devojce" a classic mid-tempo song that was followed by other classics, reels such as "Ej ti Momche Ohrigjance," "Pajdusko" and " Kalajdzisko Oro" or songs such as "Ne si go Prodavaj Koljo Ciflikot," "Yovano, Yovanke," "Eleno Kjerko" and even the original songs such as "Gypsy Magic," "Kandilce" or "Lost Whales."
Both of them were interesting to watch on the simple stage, which was decorated with unusual sci-fi stage lighting. Spassov was able to access every capability of his instrument's sonority and even sang or did vocal improvisations while Stefanovski sat with his eyes closed and inner being completely lost in the joys and pleasures of playing. Together they were able to produce fluid melodic lines, varied textures and dramatic dynamic shaping.
Despite the stylistic variety of the repertoire and the liberties they took, none of this sounded disjointed or bitty. The duo's spontaneous alchemy was mesmerizing and there was incredible synchronicity that seemed to float in or out of the improvisations. Their shared joy of music-making was tangible and radiated out toward the audience. This culminated with a standing ovation to bring back the musicians for an encore of "Skopje."
The performance at the Hungarian House saw a rare meeting between two distinct musicians at the top of their games, who combined their talents and differences in order to create a memorable performance.
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