Let me go out on a limb and broadcast my very favorable first impression of Rossen Milanov, Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. Anybody who thinks it should be amended can write a letter to the editor.
Announcement of Milanov’s selection came in June after a two-year search. He was unanimously chosen by a 12-member search committee, prompted by the controversial termination of 21-year music director Mark Laycock (U.S. 1, August 8, 2007). As guest conductor in April, 2008, he worked with the orchestra once during the search period. As music director, he makes his debut with the PSO on Sunday, January 24, in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. He gives a free pre-concert lecture to ticket holders.
A densely-filled half-hour telephone interview with Milanov unveils qualities that invite high expectations for his leadership. His intelligence, efficiency, directness, authority, and enthusiasm are inescapable.
“Who is the audience for the article you will be writing?” Milanov asks at the outset of our telephone conversation. He wants to tailor his remarks for optimum communication, avoiding both the error of being overly arcane and the tactlessness of being needlessly condescending.
When I conscientiously attempt to collect more information about his professional training than he thinks anybody needs, he lets me know that he thinks the details are not significant. “Education means nothing in conducting,” he says. “What’s important is what a conductor does at the moment. It’s a profession where you have to prove what you can do on the podium. That’s the only qualification that you need.”
When I suggest that conducting is a “put up or shut up” situation, Milanov rejects my putting words in his mouth. “That’s not my language,” he says.” It’s too colloquial.”
The January 24 concert was initially designed to be a vehicle for Milanov as a guest conductor. “I didn’t plan it but I like the programming,” he says. Pieces to be performed are Maurice Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye” suite (“Mother Goose”), Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony,” and Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes.” “It’s all music that’s close to my heart,” says Milanov.
“I’m an oboe player,” the conductor says. “Haydn was the first composer I played as a member of an orchestra. He requires a great sense of style, and a great deal of technical proficiency. Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony’ takes Haydn’s music as a model. Prokofiev uses the same shape, but fills it up with another concoction. He puts new material into an old vase.
“There’s no outside soloist in this concert,” Milanov contiues. “I want to treat members of the orchestra as soloists. The Ginastera is ideal for this. The piece is rarely played. It’s a theme and 12 variations. The cello and harp play the theme. Then the strings take over; the flute, and the other instruments get a chance. In the last movement all the instruments are united again, with a lot of Latin American spirit.”
Milanov says that he does not have a philosophy of programming. “But I have a lot of experience and a lot of ideas about what I would like to do. You cannot specialize in one style. The musicians would be overdeveloped in that style, and underdeveloped in others. It’s important to stay diversified. You must have first rate music and interesting connections between pieces. A good program is like a well-planned meal, with an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and good wine. Good programming and good meals have to be balanced.” Cooking is Milanov’s hobby. “To sample either a concert or food, you must actually be present,” he notes.
“Recording is a reproduction, not the thing itself,” Milanov says. “It’s like the difference between seeing a reproduction of the Mona Lisa instead of going to the Louvre. With recordings, someone else has done all the focusing for you. Every live performance is different because artists differ from one performance to the next. Every concert is a unique event. Every concert should be equally special.”
Milanov judges that, together, Princeton audiences, the University’s Richardson Auditorium, and the history of the PSO in the community furnish exemplary circumstances for outstanding concerts. “Princeton is an intellectual island surrounded by communities with different tastes,” he says. “In Princeton it’s possible to have a level of art that you would normally expect in a larger city. The Princeton art scene is cosmopolitan rather than local. You don’t have to do the 20 most popular musical compositions.”
As for the venue, “Richardson is wonderful acoustically,” Milanov says. “It has an intimate but resonant sound. It’s one of the best venues in the northeast.
“The history of the orchestra in the community has resulted in the expectation that it will offer something interesting, groundbreaking, and intellectually stimulating. That appeals to me as an artist.”
I wonder whether an orchestra has a personality independent of its conductor. “An orchestra does not exist in a void,” Milanov says. “When it has played together for many years, it has an institutional memory. Coming to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, I’m coming to an established orchestra; I do not have to create it from the beginning. It’s important for me to build on what they have learned. This is a very exciting time for me. It will be interesting to watch the dynamics of the collaboration.”
The relationship between conductor and orchestra is analogous to other aspects of human life, Milanov believes. “The relationship can be viewed on many levels,” he says. “It’s like a close family with mutual respect and dependency. Musicians could not do it without a conductor. On the other side, the existence of a conductor is pointless unless there is an orchestra. The conductor is the focal point, uniting the ideas of many musicians.
“Musicians and conductor have to work for a common goal,” Milanov continues. “It’s the same as a business where individuals have skills, but have to devote themselves to the strategy of their boss or the investors.”
The relationship between conductor and orchestra in the PSO is an intermittent affair. “It’s a process that does not happen every day,” says Milanov. “During the year we’ll meet six times — every other month — for a period of one week, when we work together for two and a half hours a day.” Preparation for the January 24 concert began on Tuesday, January 19.
Milanov grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, the child of engineer parents. His brother is also an engineer. At age six, he began his music studies with violin. He stopped playing violin when he became a member of the Bulgarian National Radio Children’s Choir. With the choir he visited four continents, taking his first trip when he was 10. With his chorister cohorts, he spent two months in Japan and one month in Mexico and Cuba. “We did lots of sightseeing, looking at museums and local sights. The trips were not only for performing but included cultural experiences.”
Milanov’s voice changed and he left the choir at age 15. “I missed the singing,” Milanov says, “and started oboe. Of all the instruments, oboe is most like the human voice. It’s expressive. Flute is more agile, but colder.”
As a student of oboe and conducting, Milanov trained at the Bulgarian National Conservatory in Sofia, graduating in 1990. The year he graduated he came to the United States, where he became a member of the Pittsburgh Orchestra, his first professional orchestral position, and entered a master’s program at Duquesne University.
Accepted for graduate studies in conducting both at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and at New York’s Juilliard School, he followed the advice of Otto Werner Mueller, his conducting mentor-to-be, and started at Curtis. Why Curtis? “Because of Curtis’ selectivity,” says Milanov “and because your peers at Curtis have something exceptional; everybody there is a scholarship student. Also because of Curtis’ stress on core musical values and because of the personal attention at Curtis. There are a lot of things you can read about or hear in recordings. But when you study conducting, it’s important to have someone show you in one-on-one contact.”
Studying with Mueller both at Curtis and at Juilliard, Milanov earned a diploma in conducting from Curtis in 1994 and a master’s degree in conducting from Juilliard in 1997. When he came to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Milanov was associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and artistic director at the orchestra’s Mann Center for the Performing Arts, the summer home of the orchestra in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. He continues to hold both positions. In addition, he is music director of the Bulgaria’s New Symphony Orchestra and Camden’s Symphony in C.
Becoming a conductor is a long process, Milanov believes. “You learn with experience,” he says. “You have to be very well-prepared musically, understand the psychology of the players and the psychology of the audience. You have to inspire players; there’s no room for negativity.” I mention the use of fear and anger by legendary conductors of past. “That,” says Milanov, underlining the word with his voice, “was a different period.”
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, January 24, 4 p.m. Rossen Milanov makes his official debut as music director. He conducts a program featuring music of Ravel, Haydn, Prokofiev, and Ginastera. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $20 to $64. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.