February 6, 2019

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Celebrates 10 Years of Leadership by Rossen Milanov

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 10-year relationship with Music Director Rossen Milanov this past weekend, with concerts paying tribute to the musical leadership which resulted from Milanov’s first concert with the Orchestra. Saturday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon) featured Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — the work which Milanov conducted in his debut with Princeton Symphony — as well as a Brahms piano concerto within the classical framework.

Johannes Brahms’ 1858 Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor reflected the composer’s homage to Robert Schumann, who served as a mentor to Brahms, and was originally intended as a sonata for two pianists — Brahms and Schumann’s wife Clara. Featured in this weekend’s performances by the Princeton Symphony was pianist Dominic Cheli, who received his training both at Yale University and Manhattan School of Music and is currently pursuing an artist diploma at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.   

Like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 which followed in the program, Brahms’ Concerto stated the music ferocity from the outset, with an extended orchestral introduction to the piano solo marked by both subdued strings and effective dynamic swells from timpanist Jeremy Levine. In his opening piano solo line, Cheli emerged from the orchestral texture seamlessly with thoughtful and sensitive playing, positioning the piano as a fellow instrument in the orchestra, rather than set off with its own part.   

Cheli often exhibited a particularly light left hand, adding elegance to the music as he leaned into the phrases. These airy passages were contrasted with fierce and exacting octaves and fluid arpeggios, in a clean and precise dialogue between soloist and Orchestra. Cheli took complete control in the third movement rondo, finding delicacy in the piano line while demonstrating incredible strength of hand in extended trills. Milanov maintained the musical drama through Brahms’ trademark fugue to the final measures, well conveying the composer’s struggle with creating this work.

Beethoven’s 1808 Symphony No. 5 in C minor is one of the most well-known works in classical symphonic repertory — certainly with the most familiar four-note motive in all of music. Surely in the pre-Instagram early 19th century, Beethoven had no idea this work would be considered a model of symphonic composition and its opening four notes so iconic, but throughout music history, this symphony has spoken to and united listeners worldwide.  

Beethoven once referred to the opening motive of Symphony No. 5 as “fate knocking at the door,” a quote which has since taken on legendary proportions. It would be easy for an orchestra to let this theme become a cliché in the music, but Milanov used these four notes as a device to propel the Beethoven’s artistic vision forward. Throughout the first movement, Milanov kept the tempo moving and built intensity well, as instrumental sections answered one another with thematic material.  An almost ad lib oboe solo by Lillian Copeland added elegance to the dramatic intensity.  

In the second movement, Milanov took a broad approach to each repetition of the motivic material, while a quartet of wind solos by oboist Copeland, clarinetist Pascal Archer, flutist Yevgeny Faniuk, and bassoonist Oleksiy Zakharov contrasted well with unified lower string passages. Milanov continued to add drama to the performance through the third movement scherzo, with a very clean transition to the subsequent section, with particularly effective dynamic contrasts in the lower strings. Almost spooky passages with extended pizzicati for the strings led to a rousing final allegro, as Milanov brought out joy and exuberance in the music. In this concert beginning a 10th anniversary celebration which will continue into next year, Milanov was clearly making a statement, both with Beethoven’s music and through his own leadership of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.