CSO’s Rossen Milanov will explain mechanics of conducting at Chautauqua Speaks

The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, was a monumental international event that transformed countless lives. In Bulgaria, it coincided with Rossen Milanov’s completion of his master’s degree at the National Academy of Music in the capital city of Sofia and two years in the army.

“Technically the rules changed overnight, and (so did) the options to continue working in … what I trained in,” said Milanov, who focused on music theory within the Academy’s theory, composition and conducting faculty, and on oboe within its instrumental faculty.

At 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, as part of the Chautauqua Speaks program, Milanov, music director of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, will answer the question, “What Does a Conductor Really Do?”

“My goal was never to be a conductor,” he said. “I was just a curious person, from the age of 5 or 6.”

He said he sang in a children’s choir, which traveled a lot.

“Little by little, it came to me that this is the field to suit my interests,” he said.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Milanov said, he felt he was at the stage in his life where he could study more.

“At the time it was very rare for anyone to look at conductors seriously until they were 40 to 45 years old,” he said. “Now this has changed. It seems now that everyone is going for conductors in their late 20s and early 30s. At my time, that was unheard of.”

Rossen Milanov

Milanov said he chose the oboe because “you have to be a good musician first, and the only way is to play an instrument. But a composer is deeper than an instrumentalist. In university, in Bulgaria, I was in the music theory department. I thought I had to have as broad a base as possible to be effective in an orchestra with so many instruments. (The musicians) have to feel you are speaking their language.”

A group from Duquesne University visited Sofia “a few days after the changes I mentioned,” Milanov said. They went to a Bulgarian foundation, asked if they could bring a Bulgarian student to Duquesne, provided the foundation with a student scholarship and entrusted it with choosing the best person. The foundation advertised on the radio that it was looking for conductors and composers, and Milanov applied. He said he went through a rigorous selection process, including an exam and audition.

Duquesne chose Milanov, but it was not until after he arrived in Pittsburgh that he learned that the university did not actually have a program in conducting.

“That was a shock,” Milanov said.

Since he played the oboe, he earned a master’s of music in performance.

Because he already was a trained conductor, Milanov said he was given the opportunity to conduct a small piece in a larger program. The dean of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Robert Fitzpatrick, attended the rehearsal and encouraged him to apply to Curtis. Milanov went on to spend two years at Curtis, followed by three at The Juilliard School (where he received the Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship and conducted the Pre-College Orchestra), studying under the same professor of conducting, the late Otto-Werner Mueller.

“It was a very long period of study; almost like a medical doctor,” Milanov said.

Three years later, he began his 15-year tenure as the music director of the training orchestra Symphony in C in Collingswood, New Jersey, which works in conjunction with universities, colleges and conservatories in the Mid-Atlantic region to develop the careers of young musicians. Through its annual Young Composers’ Competition, he conducted premieres of emerging composers.

Milanov said that professionally, he has probably made the most difference through his efforts to educate young musicians and develop audiences “so they don’t stay locked up in an elite tower.” By opening doors and supporting others as he had been helped, he said he has touched many “people who are already quite formed musicians … in the wonderful world of classical music. I like advancing people … and I hope they’ll pass it along.”

For instance, Milanov said he was the first conductor to do LinkUP! education projects with Carnegie Hall. In the classroom, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders learned how to sing and play an instrument; then they performed with the New York City-based Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall.

In 2000, about the time he joined Symphony in C, Milanov was also appointed assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for three years. In 2003, he became that orchestra’s associate conductor, as well as the chief conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Three years later, he was chosen as The Philadelphia Orchestra’s artistic director for its summer program at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

Currently, Milanov is not only the music director of the CSO, but also of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Princeton Symphony Orchestra and Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

In addition, he appears and collaborates with ensembles, orchestras (including for radio and TV), symphonies, operas and ballets in Canada, Colombia, Europe, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea and throughout the United States. He has also conducted premieres by Richard Danielpour, Nicholas Maw and Gabriel Prokofiev.

Milanov has collaborated with several of the most accomplished musicians in the world, including Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, Christian Tetzlaff and André Watts.

Among the honors that Milanov has received is a 2011 award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his programming with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the 2005 Bulgaria’s Musician of the Year, and the Bulgarian Ministry’s Award for Extraordinary Contribution to Bulgarian Culture.   

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The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.