Review: Milanov delivers shrewd performance from the podium

Review by John Chacona 

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer Guest conductor Rossen Milanov le the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening during a performance with solo pianist Di Wu in the Amphitheater.

The first shock of the recently concluded World Cup soccer tournament came with the dismissal of Spain, winners of the last FIFA Cup in 2010 with their “tiki-taka” game of precise passes and disciplined teamwork.

Discipline and precision were very much in evidence in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra program of this past Thursday, conducted by Bulgarian-born Rossen Milanov, music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and the training orchestra Symphony in C — both in New Jersey — and principal conductor of Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

A trim and compact man who looks as though he might have been a soccer midfielder or a dancer, Milanov on the podium seemed to embody the music, bouncing on the balls of his feet and sculpting phrases with great sweeps of his upper body.

He was fun to watch, but there was nothing stagy about his podium demeanor. Dressed in a white tunic that drew the eye, the players seemed unusually attentive to their leader. That was probably a good thing, considering that the concert’s opener, the overture to Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest, could not have been in the playing experience of many of the CSO’s musicians.

It’s a descriptive scene-setter, a storm in music with cascading sheets of swiftly moving strings and gusts of ominous, bellowing low brass — four minutes and eight seconds of meteorological fury.

And it was great fun, though the Amp’s resonant acoustic obscured some of the lashing detail of Adès’ Expressionist scene painting. When the storm had passed, an audience member, who is a prominent jazz bassist, exclaimed his approval with a vigorous, “Yeah,” the jazz nerd’s classic response to an especially gripping solo. “Yeah,” indeed.

There’s a fair amount of jazz in Ravel’s 1931 Concerto in G major, too. Written after an American tour on which the French composer had encountered Gershwin, the concerto also has echoes of Spanish music (Ravel’s mother was of Basque ancestry), and in the second movement, Mozartean lyricism and melancholy.  

It’s two different works, then, and in the opening movement, pianist Di Wu seemed to cast her lot with the yearning, nostalgic Ravel. She lingered dreamily over the modal, flamenco guitar-like figure into which the music dissolved after the snappy, wisecracking opening. She played the arioso slow movement with poise and reserve, but maybe a bit too much reserve. It’s tricky stuff. Music of such exquisite refinement can easily tip into bathos or decorative irrelevance, and the pianist steered a cautious middle course.

 The finale begins with a whip crack and an off-to-the-races gallop. It’s music for a movie farce by the Marx Brothers, and Wu got all the notes, but perhaps without the last measure of abandon and insouciant fun that the music offers. A photo on her Twitter feed shows Wu sitting in with New Orleans-born pianist Jonathan Battiste, apparently a friend from their Juilliard days. If Wu is experimenting with jazz, it will be fascinating to her next performance of the Ravel.

Listeners who dismiss Rachmaninoff’s orchestral music as overly discursive and sentimental (this writer is one of them) would have been disappointed with Milanov’s reading of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”

Milanov clearly had the measure of the late (1940) work and led a terrific performance, shot through with Germanic structural rigor and French shapeliness and clarity. Slavic sentiment was not absent, either, but was never stagy or calculated. The conductor’s precise shaping of phrases and confident use of rhythmic plasticity ensured that Rachmaninoff’s juicy melodies sang, but never sobbed.

There were times when Milanov’s manipulation of tempos threatened to go off the tracks, but he emerged at the last moment to bring the music to a shrewdly judged peak that sounded inevitable and correct. It was like watching a soccer player toy with the ball, making the defender lean in one direction then deftly dribbling around him to calmly and self-assuredly put the ball in the goal — jogo bonito, “the beautiful game.”

The CSO hasn’t had a music director since the summer when Spain was crowned as the last World Cup soccer champion. Predicting the results of music director searches is as foolhardy a pastime as predicting the outcomes of soccer tournaments, but last evening, in the fourth year of the CSO’s music director search, Rossen Milanov was the man of the match.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

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