Mostly, one doesn’t think about the non-musical details of daily life behind an artistic event. However, attempting to interview Rossen Milanov, music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, serves as a reminder that a conductor has to cope with more than studying scores and signaling his wishes from the podium.
Milanov leads the PSO in a concert titled “Dreams, Memories, and Truth,” Sunday, November 13, at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. The unique program comprises works that are inspired by the written word, including two world premieres by Princeton musician/scholar and philanthropist, the late Edward T. Cone: “The Duchess of Malfi,” an operatic scene from John Webster’s tragic play of the same title, with Melissa Fajardo, contralto; Zach Borichevsky, tenor; and Grigory Soloviov, bass-baritone, and “La Figlia che Piange,” a musical setting of the bittersweet poem by T.S. Eliot.
Art- and poetry-inspired compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff bracket the Cone works. The dream-like scene painted by Arnold Bocklin is heard in the symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead,” and the Schola Cantorum of Rider University’s Westminster Choir College joins the PSO for “The Bells,” a choral symphony set to the Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous words about life’s sorrows and joys.
After an E-mail exchange Milanov and I have agreed on a Monday morning telephone interview. But he has been attacked by an acute respiratory problem that makes conversation out of the question, and we agree to do the interview via E-mail.
Having been invited to conduct the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra in a Sunday concert, Milanov had gone to Annandale-on-Hudson, dogged by his cold. He self-medicates and leads the concert, which consists of pieces by Claude Debussy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — selections having no overlap with the PSO program. “Pain killers sometimes can get you through performances,” he writes. “That was the case last night.”
Feeling too ill to drive home to Philadelphia immediately after the concert, he spends the night at Bard, and returns Monday, arriving after our scheduled appointment. His e-mailed answers to my questions are full and to the point.
The thinking behind pairing Rachmaninoff and Cone on a single program comes from the inspirations for the works, he explains. “We are presenting pieces that have a poetic inspiration.”
The texts of the Cone compositions, “The Duchess of Malfi” and “La Figlia che Piange,” come from works separated by three centuries. John Webster’s five-act play, “The Duchess of Malfi,” was published in 1623; T.S Eliot’s 24-line poem, “La Figlia che Piange” (“The Girl Who Weeps”), appeared in 1920. “The texts are absolutely essential to the message of the works,” Milanov says. “Knowing them is essential both for me and for the orchestra.”
Cone composed the “Duchess” in 1954 and “La Figlia” in 1962. “The ‘Duchess’ calls for contralto, tenor, and bass soloists. The text comes from the final act of Webster’s play, when the Duchess’s husband Antonio and his confidant, Delio, meet in the cemetery where the Duchess is buried. They plan their revenge against members of the Duchess’ family, who have killed her for marrying below her class. The voice of the Duchess joins in from the grave.
“La Figlia” calls for a tenor soloist, the supposed narrator for Eliot’s poem. The two Cone works together take about 15 minutes together. “They are relatively non-traditional,” Milanov says. “Since both works have not been performed before we needed to make orchestral parts and to audition singers for the roles.
“Cone left a large number of works that have never been performed during his life time.” Milanov continues. “We are very grateful to the Edward T. Cone estate for making these scores accessible to us. For us, as an orchestra based in Princeton, it is very important to bring to life works that have such a strong Princeton connection as Cone’s music.”
Cone graduated from Princeton in the Class of 1939. He was the first Princeton student to submit a musical composition as his senior thesis. He earned a Princeton master’s degree in 1942 and spent his entire professional career at the university, retiring in 1985. For four years during World War II he served in the Army, first as a pianist in the Middle East, then in the Office of Strategic Services.
An advocate of new music, Cone published three major books. His lectures and seminars at Princeton were legendary for grappling with the big issues in music in an accessible way. He died at age 91 in 2004, leaving more than 80 compositions for various musical ensembles.
His estate provides financial support for a fistful of local performing entities, which honor him by designating performances in his honor. The November 13 PSO concert, for instance, is the annual Edward T. Cone concert of the orchestra, which has been scheduling an Edward T. Cone concert since 2007.
Milanov calls Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells” “an extraordinarily imaginative work.” Three of its four movements feature solo vocalists. The energetic third movement stars soloist Disella Larusdottir and Westminster Choir College’s Schola Cantorum. The WCC ensemble is composed of students in their second year of study.
About the choir Milanov says, “I have performed with the Schola Cantorum in the past and particularly value their vocal command and youthful enthusiasm. ‘The Bells’ is a challenging work that requires to be sung in Russian, and they have embraced it wholeheartedly.”
Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” is another piece of non-musical origin. The work is based on a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, which Rachmaninoff saw in Paris in 1907.
Milanov gives a “PSO Soundtrack” lecture at the Monroe Library on Wednesday, November 9, at 1:30 p.m. and the same lecture at Princeton Library at 4:30 p.m. Each of the five talks in the “Soundtrack” series is geared to a PSO Classical Series concert. The November 9 talk and the November 13 concert embrace themes in conjunction with Princeton University’’s community-wide project “Memory and the Work of Art.” Milanov will explore how memory shapes the creative process of composers and musical artists. He adds: “I will be talking about setting words to music and the process that transforms a poetic inspiration to a musical experience.”
The PSO is only one of Milanov’s regular orchestral affiliations. He also serves as associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and is music director of the New Symphony Orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria, as well as of Camden’s Symphony in C, a professional training orchestra. This season he makes orchestral debuts on four continents, having been invited by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the Opernhaus Zurich.
However, his heart remains in Princeton. “PSO is of utmost importance to me,” he says. “I am not physically present all the time in Princeton (my home is in Philadelphia and I travel a lot), but I devote as much time as possible not only to PSO’s planning and performing, but also in connecting to the community.”
The PSO chose Milanov as its musical leader in June, 2009, after a two-year search. He made his debut with the PSO in January, 2010 (U.S. 1, January 20, 2010). “I am constantly learning from my colleague-musicians,” he says, “and each performance cycle gives us a chance to know more about each other. It is a relationship that gets deeper with time.”
Born in 1965, the child of engineer parents, Milanov grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria. A lapsed oboist, he graduated from the Bulgarian National Conservatory in 1990. He studied conducting at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and New York’s Juilliard School. “I spend less and less time in Bulgaria lately,” he says. “I don’t know in what language I dream.”
Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s Soundtracks Series, Monroe Public Library, 4 Municipal Plaza, Monroe. Wednesday, November 9, 1:30 p.m., and Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, 4:30 p.m. “Dreams, Memories, and Truth,” a lecture presented by Rossen Milanov, the orchestra’s music director. In conjunction with the concert’s works to the themes of Princeton University’s community-wide projects “Memory and the Work of Art.” Milanov explores how memory shapes the creative process of composers and musical artist. Free.
Classical Series, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m. “Dreams, Memories, and Truth” includes music by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Edward T. Cone. Performing with the orchestra are Disella Larusdottir, soprano; Melissa Fajardo, contralto; Zach Borichevsky, tenor; Grigory Soloviov, bass baritone; and Westminster Schola Cantorum. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $25 to $68. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.