At the end of July 2018, a few short days before a couple of hundred guests were to arrive for the opening of the first-ever chamber music festival in the village of Kovachevitsa, the festival organizers realized they would not have enough seats to accommodate everyone. The local community center’s own inventory of 25 chairs and the chairs and benches borrowed from a local pub, private homes, and the municipal office in the nearby village of Gurmen might just fall short.
“The hall didn’t look so good either,” says Dafinka Kehayova, the local librarian, with apparent embarrassment. For the past fifteen years, she has been looking after Svetlina Community Center library’s stock of rare books and dwindling readership. Unofficially, she is custodian of the whole chitalishte, the Bulgarian equivalent of a community center and performance hall rolled in one, and among the few remaining keepers of social life in the village.
Seating arrangements and the interior’s shortcomings were far from the enthralled listeners’ minds on August 3–6, 2018, when the first edition of Off the Beaten Path Chamber Music Festival took place. Captivating performances of works by Mozart, Brahms, Prokofiev, Dvořák and contemporary composers such as Paul Schoenfield and Dobrinka Tabakova filled the space, their power amplified by the chitalishte hall’s crisp acoustics and Kovachevitsa’s bucolic charm.
In a word, the festival was a resounding success.
To ensure that future editions of the event would do equally well, more permanent seating arrangements had to be made. The chitalishte building had other issues as well. Apart from chairs, doors and roof tiles were in short supply; others were in poor condition. Dressing rooms were used for storage and needed repainting. Fixing all of the building’s problems would take time and a considerable investment, so festival organizers Lora Tchekoratova, Georgy Valtchev, Nikola Takov, and Mariana Karpatova formed Charitable Society Svetlina to fundraise for the costly renovations. The chair predicament inspired their very first campaign, Donate a Chair.
By gifting a chair to a beloved friend or family member, benefactors support the renovation of Svetlina Community Center. (Their contribution is acknowledged with a plaque on the chair’s backrest.) This type of campaign is popular in the United States and is really effective because “you are involved in solving a problem both financially and through the gesture you make as a benefactor,” Lora says.
Giving back was Lora’s purpose in launching the festival all along. A Juilliard-trained concert pianist with a successful international career, Lora has lived in the United States since 1992 and has extensive experience fundraising for musical initiatives. She wants to use what she learned through three decades of living and working abroad for the betterment of her native Bulgaria and of the local community in particular. Renowned violinists Georgy Valtchev and Nikola Takov and opera singer Mariana Karpatova joined her in her quest, becoming cofounders of Off the Beaten Path Chamber Music Festival.
Perched on the western edge of the Rhodope Mountains and boasting a proud history as a home to artists and craftsmen, Kovachevitsa was a perfect setting for their endeavor.
Four years on, it’s hard to overstate the festival’s positive impact on the local community. Guesthouses in the area sell out for the festival weekend, restaurants fill to capacity, local artisans make more sales. For a few weeks around the festival, the streets of Kovachevitsa pulse with the sound of music and laughter. Crucially, with attendees coming from across Bulgaria and from as far away as the United States, the festival has put Kovachevitsa on the world’s culture and tourism maps. “Thanks to the people from Off the Beaten Path, the village has truly been revitalized. People have discovered Kovachevitsa not only in Bulgaria, but in the rest of the world,” Dafinka says.
The festival was successful in another important way as well: it showed locals that if they worked together, the entire community would benefit. So, every year, in preparation for the festival, Dafinka is joined by local youth, public servants, and entrepreneurs helping tend to the chitalishte and its surroundings. Many of the nearly 40 chair adopters to date are also locals. The area residents’ pride in their cultural heritage was truly revealed last fall, however, when parts of the roof finally gave in after a spell of heavy rain. The entire sum for the roof’s repair was collected within two months of Lora’s emotional appeal for emergency donations.
In 2021, Charitable Society Svetlina was awarded a grant by the Agora Platform, in partnership with the America for Bulgaria Foundation, to further its work of promoting philanthropy and volunteering at the local level.
“My dream is to see the village become a cultural destination. In Bulgaria, there are 4,000 such community centers, and I hope that what we are doing will serve as a model for [the transformation of] other chitalishta and villages as well,” Lora says.
Although further renovation work is planned for this year, Svetlina Community Center today is a far cry from what it was five years ago. And so is Kovachevitsa.
“Knowing what the place was like when I first came and what it’s like now, when you see all the chairs ordered… you feel somehow more inspired,” says Dafinka, the librarian. Scanning the transformed hall with a tender look, like a mother would a child, she adds, with a hand on her heart: “Something flutters in here.”