Rach and Roll: Milanov kicks off debut season with old classics, pianist Gavrylyuk

At left, Rossen Milanov, then a guest conductor, directs a section of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra during his July 10, 2014, appearance in the Amphitheater. At right, Alexander Gavrylyuk plays during a special evening recital Aug. 13, 2014.

Be our guest no more: Rossen Milanov will take the Amphitheater stage at 8:15 p.m. tonight for the first time as Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor and music director. With him, he brings regular soloist, pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk.

Milanov arrives with three guest-conducting appearances under his belt, the first in 2011. The Bulgarian-born conductor also serves as music director for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and Symphony in C, the professional training orchestra in Camden, New Jersey.

Milanov’s recent appointment means the 2015 season will serve as his official introduction to Chautauqua. His previous visits were for single performances, with visits as short as one day. Tonight’s concert was consciously programmed to make a strong first impression, he said.

“I thought to have a sense of a substantial concert — an opening gala that could energize people and showthem in a very interesting way all the colors, all the power, all the subtlety and all of the beautiful romantic moments that people love in symphonic music,” Milanov said.

For tonight’s audience, Milanov will conduct Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and  Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, which features Gavrylyuk on solo piano.

The CSO will also perform “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” in memory of Mary Whitaker and Vern Kagarice, both former symphony members, and “Rainbow Body” by American composer Christopher Theofanidis.

With the exception of “Rainbow Body,” each piece is regularly performed as part of the standard orchestral repertoire.

“I thought it was very important to bring these big war horses so that people could really enjoy them,” Milanov said. “They’re popular for a good reason. You can’t just deny that.”

But popular does not mean easy.

Milanov said it’s difficult staging such an ambitious program with as few as one rehearsal per performance. Ultimately, he said, intuition and body language serve as the most efficient method of communication between podium and ensemble.

“You communicate through your body language, and you hope that the orchestra is sensitive and mature enough to translate directions in compelling music-making,” Milanov said. “I think certainly that is true for Chautauqua.”

Milanov said this whole season is about testing the waters as he aims to fill vacant chairs and solidify an artistic direction for the orchestra. But amid whatever changes he plans for the CSO’s roster or programming, he said not inviting Alexander Gavrylyuk back to Chautauqua was never part of the equation.

“The soloist was a given,” Milanov said.

Gavrylyuk first appeared in Chautauqua in 2006 already highly regarded after winning the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein Competition the previous year. In the past decade, he has become one of the world’s most prolific artists with performances around the world. This year, he returns to Chautauqua for the 10th time with his wife and two young children.

“Coming back, it’s like playing with friends,” Gavrylyuk said.

Tonight will be the first of his three performances slated for the 2015 season. He said the unique context of performing in Chautauqua makes it one of his most musically rich performance venues.

“What makes music flourish is the artistic truth that comes out onstage. It is the openness and complete liberation of oneself and complete emotion in the artistic and spiritual spheres which are created by music,” Gavrylyuk said. “This is a perfect place to soak in this mindset, this feeling, this freedom and then apply it to my music making. It’s always more inspiring here to play.”