Season’s greetings from Kosovo

The ambassador opens the front door, so of course my mind goes blank.

Debrett’s said something about a particular use of Your Excellency, but I can’t remember what.

He smiles and shakes my hand, I mumble something and hurry down the hallway. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would not be impressed.

Rows of chairs face a piano and a window, in a beautiful old Bloomsbury house. A fireplace with the Kosovo and Union Jack flags at either side.

The programme says this is the Festive Season Concert 2015, and we are to hear performances from Bardh Lepaja, a young violinist studying at Whitgift School, in Croydon, and Yilka Istrefi, a London-based pianist.

A gentleman in the seat in front mentions to a woman beside him that the son of either the King or the President of Kosovo attends Whitgift School, and that the headteacher discovered Bardh while on a visit to the new Balkan country, scouting for talent to participate in an international music festival.

Another guest mentions a recent visit to Albania, and an enjoyable trip on a railway – there are plans to reopen a line to Montenegro, it seems.

While studying the programme, the seat next to me is taken. Endri is not from Kosovo, but an Albanian who came to London to study some years ago and now works in the housing department of a local authority.

He explains to me the complicated history of the region, that Alba means sunrise in Italian, while Albania is called Shqiperi by Albanians. I’d heard this before, at an event in 2009 to celebrate a year of Kosovan independence, and mention the editor of an Albanian newspaper who’d invited me back then.

Endri smiles and tells me that he’s sitting a few rows behind us.

Hush descends as the ambassador appears in front of the piano, sporting a splendid turquoise tie. He welcomes those present, promises to not speak for more than 60 minutes, and says that since pop star Rita Ora, who was born in Prishtina, has been made an honorary ambassador by the President, he has little work to do. He seems a jolly fellow, and hopefully likely to forgive a protocol malfunction at the front door.

Bardh Lepaja goes first. Bach, then the deep-rolling drama of Schumann, rounded off with the stunning virtuosity of Zigeunerweisen, by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate. It has the rapid-fire pyrotechnics of a heavy metal guitar solo, and I mean that in a good way.

Yilka Istrefi is equally adventurous, opening with Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, before the insistent, sonorous menace of Florent Shasivari’s The Journey. Next is the angular, brilliantly contemporary-sounding, Arbereshe Bells by Rafet Rudi, a Kosovan composer, if the internet is correct, and all culminating in an indefatigable tsunami of Rachmaninoff.

The chairs are cleared away, and it’s a pleasure to meet up again with my old friend Fatmir Terziu, the newspaper editor.

It’s a small world, even in London.






About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
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