Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 4
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s New Era Introduces Rossen Milanov to Community

Nancy Plum

Every ensemble’s new music director likes to make their individual musical taste clear at the outset of their tenure. Rossen Milanov, the new Music Director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, started his journey with the orchestra on Sunday afternoon with “Gems from our Music Director,” that appeared to be a combination of his personal favorites and pieces that he thought the audience would immediately connect with. Through this teaser of a concert, the sold-out house at Richardson Auditorium became acquainted with Mr. Milanov as he eases his way into the artistic leadership of the orchestra. To announce his arrival on the podium, Mr. Milanov chose appealing symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and Sergei Prokofiev, bracketed by programmatic works by Maurice Ravel and Alberto Ginastera.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose” suite) was originally premiered as a piano duet and then reworked by Ravel as a ballet and later a stand-alone suite. Each of the five movements of the suite depicts a “Mother Goose” story embedded in the impressionistic instrumentation for which Ravel in known. The first movement “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” immediately demonstrated the difference between the “new era” of the Princeton Symphony and the ensemble of old, beginning a range of piano dynamics not heard from this ensemble in quite a while.

Mr. Milanov kept the sound reflective, with the members of the orchestra playing with palpable sensitivity and concentration. The orchestra has long proven that it can play loudly, and almost imperceptible strings in this movement showed the orchestra’s ability to play extremely quietly.

In the second “story,” a rich English horn played by Nicholas Masterson complemented insightful solos by oboist Caroline Park and flutist Amy Wolfe doubling on piccolo. Ravel’s music is all about orchestral colors and the dynamic builds and shadings presented a very French palette. Throughout this suite (as well as the rest of the concert), it was clear that the program was about the players of the orchestra, not the new Maestro. Mr. Milanov stayed clearly out of the way as the orchestra found its range of nuances, reaching its full sound toward the end of the suite.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 is a musical gumdrop, and is linked to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony through a sort of compositional time machine. Mr. Milanov showed a good sense of drama in the Classical era, as well as the playfulness of Haydn. He clearly excels at finding the courtly and majestic characteristics of the music, and successfully drew different styles and dynamics from the orchestra.

Sections were tapered extremely well, and the viola and cello swirls of the first and closing movements were very clean, with very graceful flute solo playing from Jayn Rosenfeld.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major (the Classical Symphony) is always a crowd pleaser, and would have endeared the audience to Mr. Milanov on its own, even without the crisp playing of the first half of the concert. Composed on the brink of the Russian Revolution, this work looked back to the time of Haydn, fully recognizing all that had musically evolved in the intervening century. Mr. Milanov wasted no time getting this symphony off the ground with effective swells in the orchestration and especially clean winds. The Haydn and Prokofiev symphonies played well into Mr. Milanov’s meticulousness with detail, and the players were able to find the line within the exactness. The second movement was especially elegant in its courtly manner, with very soft strings and winds on melody. Equally as impressive was the musical direction in the pizzicato string playing, accompanied by bassoons. The fourth movement, a collection of instrumental whirling dervishes, was kept well in line, and it was clear that the players could not drift away for even a second.

Mr. Milanov closed the program with an effortless set of Variaciones Concertantes by Alberto Ginastera, a work reflecting Peronist Argentina of the early 1950s. Focusing heavily on the winds, the eleven variations of this work contrasts the open atmosphere of the pampas with the rhythmic dances of the Argentine. Effective wind playing abounded in this work including from oboist Ms. Park, clarinetists William Amsel and Sherry Hartman Apgar, flutists Ms. Rosenfeld and Ms. Wolfe, and bassoonist Roe Goodman.

The beginnings of a relationship between the new music director and the ensemble are always daunting, yet full of endless possibility. In this concert, Mr. Milanov wisely took the emphasis off of himself and placed it on the players, and in return, a sold-out house and warm reception by the audience indicated good faith in these new beginnings.

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