For CSO, Milanov, an encouraging and celebratory start

Guest Critic Review by Christopher H. Gibbs

There was an unusual sense of anticipation and celebration Thursday night at the opening concert of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 87th season. After the traditional communal singing of the national anthem, the game began with Rossen Milanov leading his inaugural concert as the ensemble’s new conductor and music director. Milanov previously conducted here three times, first in 2011, and was appointed as the CSO’s ninth music director in October. His entrance overlaps with a notable exit: After the anthem, President Tom Becker introduced Marty Merkley, who retires this year as vice president and director of programming. The unusually large Chautauqua audience joined the orchestra in giving Merkley a standing ovation as a show of gratitude for 25 years of elegant and devoted service.

It is heartening that Milanov chose to kick off his tenure by programming a work of a contemporary American composers and then by shaping such a committed performance. Christopher Theofanidis’s “Rainbow Body” is an immediately attractive and listener-friendly piece. Given its title, and in light of last week’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, one could not help but have associations leap to mind for such a celebratory work, especially as near the end of the score calls for joyous cheering from the orchestra members.

But in fact, the title refers to a Tibetan Buddhist belief in the transformation of the enlightened dead into the energy of the universe. Musically, the piece is based on a medieval chant written by Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine abbess, mystic, author and composer known for the grand sweep of her melodies. One such soaring tune is “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite” (Hail Mary, O authoress of life), which Theofanidis effectively and colorfully elaborates over the course of the 12-minute composition.

The use of Gregorian chant within orchestral pieces is nothing new, as the two other principal works on the program demonstrated by quoting the most famous medieval melody, the “Dies irae” from the Requiem Mass. I don’t know if Milanov planned the concert with this in mind, but it served as a subtle thematic thread throughout the evening.

No soloist has enjoyed as sustained a relationship with the CSO as has pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who first appeared in 2006 and has returned every summer since. This remarkable Ukrainian-born musician, who turns 31 this year, also regularly gives recitals and master classes here in what amounts to an annual residency that has allowed Chautauquans to observe his spectacular artistic growth.

Gavrylyuk specializes, perhaps to a somewhat limiting degree, in Russian repertory and on this latest outing played Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The distinctive qualities of Gavrylyuk’s thrilling gifts were amply in evidence: dazzling technique wedded to sensitive musicianship. I have attended many performances of this warhorse, but never one more engaging, further enhanced by Milanov’s alert accompaniment.

The standing ovation that erupted at the end fell into the spontaneous rather than obligatory category, and deservedly so. The audience was rewarded with the mind-blowing virtuosity of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as arranged by Franz Liszt, and then made even more dazzlingly difficult by Vladimir Horowitz. One rarely hears such electrifying pianistic display — no wonder we all await Gavrylyuk’s return each summer. (Or sooner: he performs in the Amphitheater next Tuesday and Wednesday nights.)

Celebration of another order, that commemorating lives lost, came after intermission. The bare stage gradually filled as CSO members processed in and placed white roses in memory of violinist Mary Whitaker and trombonist Vern Kagarice, both of whom died last year. The orchestra then played the deeply moving “Nimrod” section of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” followed by total silence in the hall — an opportunity for reflection on tragic loss.

Milanov concluded the concert with a brilliant performance of one of the key works in the orchestral repertory. The 26-year-old Hector Berlioz composed his first symphony in 1830, just three years after Beethoven’s death, and titled it “Episode in the Life of an Artist: Fantastic Symphony in Five Movements.” There had never before been a work of program music quite like it, and the impact was enormous. In his role as music critic, Robert Schumann wrote the longest review of his career praising the music (he had reservations about the story behind it) and Franz Liszt transcribed the sprawling work for piano. It requires some historical imagination to recapture the most shocking aspects of the work and appreciate the various ways in which it helped shape musical Romanticism.

Symphonie fantastique was a shrewd choice for Milanov to program at his inaugural concert because in some ways, it is a grand “concerto for orchestra.” Berlioz initially hoped for a band of about 220 players (he got much less) and the sonic imagination and innovations are extraordinary. He enlisted instruments previously unheard of in symphonies (such as harps and chimes), used more traditional ones in new ways (four kinds of clarinets, bassoons spotlighted as never before) and employed instruments that have since disappeared (serpent and ophicleide). And it is not just who plays but how the musicians are instructed to play — Berlioz exploited new effects. It is a fantastic piece in every sense.

Milanov elicited a terrific performance from the CSO. The solo playing throughout was generally at a high level, but most impressive was the overall ensemble. The energy, clarity, balances and loving attention to details made this a far from routine presentation. I have a habit of noting in my score every performance I attend and looking over a long list I realize Symphonie fantastique is something I have heard performed a lot, including a good many times in the Amphitheater over the past forty years. I have rarely, for any piece, witnessed the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra play with such vitality and commitment. What an encouraging and celebratory start to a new chapter in its distinguished history.

Christopher H. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College, co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, executive editor of The Musical Quarterly, and program annotator for The Philadelphia Orchestra. Among his books are The Life of Schubert, which has been translated into five languages, and the college edition of The Oxford History of Western Music, co-authored with Richard Taruskin.