Jassen Todorov’s artistry onstage and in the air spotlights the best of northern California’s classical music and diverse natural beauty.
Based in the Bay Area, Todorov is recognized worldwide for his award-winning music and photography. His photos are as bold, harmonious, and stirring as his violin music, revealing his dedication to consistent work, creative refinement, and adrenaline-charged adventure.
His musical education began in his native Bulgaria (where he is now considered one of the country’s most prized musicians), and brought him to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California. Todorov’s background is decorated with full scholarships at top music conservatories, numerous awards from national and international competitions, and an extensive repertoire. The prominent musician is currently a Professor of Violin at San Francisco State University, and actively teaches and performs throughout Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Australia.
His achievements in music are matched by his highly respected photography. Through his experience as a pilot and flight instructor, Todorov developed a specialty in aerial photography. Beginning with magnificent local images of northern California landscapes, coastlines, and cities, his portfolio has been expanding to include remarkable birds-eye views of renowned and remote parts of the world. His long list of prize-winning work has been featured in prestigious international publications including National Geographic, the Guardian, Telegraph, Time, Los Angeles Times, and Wired.
Read on for words from Jassen Todorov, and learn more about his passion for bringing music to life, exploring the skies, and capturing iconic images of the land below.
Local Santa Cruz: How did you become involved with your art, starting with the violin and classical music?
Jassen Todorov: I grew up in a family of musicians. My father is a violin professor, and after graduating from the music conservatory, my mother worked as a sound engineer for the Bulgarian National TV. My parents always had friends over who were artists or musicians, so I grew up in an environment where creativity and concerts were held in the highest regard. During the 1980s, I had the opportunity to attend specialized music and art schools with likeminded people. It was competitive to attend and remain in those schools, but I gained from that system. I was 11 when I had my first soloist debut with an orchestra. Very few survive that competitive world. You need perseverance and energy, and I was inspired by my parents’ hard work and success.
What brought you to California?
I moved to southern California in 1992 to study music where I was exposed to a high level of mentoring and orchestra playing. Bulgaria was going through some dark times and high inflation after the fall of communism, so the ability to receive a full scholarship and come to the U.S. at the time was really a gift. The first tour I did with the orchestra several months after I arrived in California was in San Francisco. I completely fell in love with the city. Although I have lived and worked in other states, I am happiest in California, and have been living in San Francisco for the past 15 years.
What inspired you to become an aerial photographer?
While I was studying for my doctorate in music in 2002, I started taking flying lessons to travel and learn more and balance my work. I also wanted a “Plan B” in case I couldn’t get a job as a musician. After I trained for my pilot’s license and became a flight instructor, I wanted to capture some of the magical moments of flying. At first I carried a point and shoot camera. Eventually, I invested in a better camera offering options like more megapixels, better resolution, and a bigger lens. Now I use a Nikon D810, which makes a big difference, especially for aerial photography. I’m thankful for the technology making it possible to capture details that sometimes the human eye alone cannot. I’d look at my pictures after flying and relive the beautiful moments over again. In 2014, I took my first big trip with my Piper Warrior 4-seater plane, across mountains, valleys, and national parks from California to Wyoming. After that trip, I started selling pictures and little by little started receiving awards. I realized I had stumbled upon something by accident.
How has living in northern California influenced your creative work?
In terms of music, it has taken me a long time to get to where I’m at with it, so right now I’m really enjoying it. Living in the Bay Area has connected me to wonderful people and helped me grow artistically. I’ve collaborated with dancers and visual artists. I’m always interested in movement and patterns in both music and nature. There are patterns in each landscape and even in the diverse construction of people that are reminiscent of music and that inspire my photographs. With the photography, it’s still relatively new, so there’s a lot of discovery in it for me. There are many places I want to photograph, but even though I have flown across the country and explored internationally, I keep coming back to California. It is so photogenic and has it all – incredible mountains, glaciers, rivers, deserts and coastlines. There are even places, like the California craters, that from above look unearthly like the moon or Mars. Also, you can fly almost 365 days out of the year here. We are very fortunate in that way and it’s one of my favorite places to be.