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Tireless Classics with Maestro Milanov, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opens season with winds-highlighting Mozart, Tchaikovsky’s 4th

Brett Phelps / Daily file photo
Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in its opening night performance June 25, 2023, in the Amphitheater. 

At 75, Eli Eban has had a lengthy career — and personal relationship — with the clarinet. When he takes the Amphitheater stage this evening for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s opening performance of the summer, it will be his 32nd season, and his last before his planned retirement.

The first concert of his last season, at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amp under the baton of Music Director and Principal Symphonic Conductor Rossen Milanov, is made up a program Eban said he’ll never tire of: Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. 

“Mozart writes some of the best music there is for clarinet, and the Tchaikovsky Fourth is such a classic,” Eban said. “These are pieces that, when I think of retiring, there’s a wistfulness and sadness because I know I probably will not play them again on a professional level — I would not be interested in doing anything less than that. The last couple of seasons leading up to this season have been a slow goodbye to the repertoire; … Some players get tired of often-played works, but I don’t. Certainly not of these two pieces.”

The opening Mozart highlights the CSO’s principal winds: Jaren Atherholt on oboe, Eban on clarinet, and Jeffrey Robinson on bassoon, plus Roger Kaza on the horn. Mozart originally wrote his Sinfonia concertante as a love letter to both the violin and viola; he wrote this piece at 22, a year after his mother died. 

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, sometimes called the “symphony of fate,” Eban said, was dedicated to and made possible by pen pal Nadezhda von Meck who provided funds for Tchaikovsky to devote himself full time to his compositions. As Eban looks to retirement, he is also looking back to when he first picked up his instrument, and his fated connection to the clarinet. He has been playing since he was 12, and after hearing the clarinet in a chamber music setting he simply “knew (he) wanted to make that (his) life’s work,” so he did.

“There was a sense of recognition that the sound of the instrument could bond with something deep in me and become a part of my identity,” Eban said. “At age 13 or 14, I wouldn’t have defined it that way, but I had a burning desire to do that and only that.”

Eban was born in Israel and was playing with the Israel Philharmonic when he took a sabbatical leave to teach at the Eastern School of Music. From there, the CSO’s music director at the time asked him to audition for the orchestra. Having never heard of it, Eban appreciated the “beauty of Chautauqua” and the “terrific players.”

“Had I not gotten that call, I probably would have gone back to the Israel Philharmonic, but this was a great opportunity to play a symphony season’s worth of repertoire in eight weeks. It’s very intense and we get a lot done,” Eban said. “The relentless intensity of the summer, which is beautiful, but to then go from there to an intense academic year at my stage of the game is starting to be a bit much.”

Having the opportunity to teach and perform has provided “a sense of building and progress.” Even after retiring from the CSO, Eban will still return to the grounds to teach at the School of Music. 

“I’ve always loved the variety of music and the hybrid of teaching with performing that provides one aspect feeds another,” Eban said. “I enjoy helping students sound better and introducing them to great master works that were written for the clarinet to be played in a certain tradition I believe in — it’s passing on what I received from some of my great teachers.”

Every morning Eban wakes up and habitually puts a clarinet in his hands before going in to teach at 9 a.m. where he arrives an hour early to practice a little more. The desire to play stems from interest and intellect, but the need for playing is “primarily an emotional one.”

“What I feel emotionally (when playing) can best be described as a sense of flow, there are no words in those sounds. Emotion has a particular feel to it physically. I would say, on a good day, 90% of playing is a sense of that flow and 10% is the professional part of the mind that evaluates,” Eban said. “In a way, it’s like losing oneself in the sound, in the music.”

The amount of “gratitude and privilege” that Eban feels is attributed to the ability to have a “50 year career of performing great music on the instrument (he) loves,” but finds unique meaning in being able to play with friends and colleagues.

“Making beautiful sounds together to combine into a new beautiful sound [(s what I’ll miss most), the ability of individual instruments to come together to make something entirely new. We’ve played so often together, for so many years in the same group, that we’ve become great friends,” Eban said. “We trust each other musically and I know the neighbor next to me knows what I’ll do before I know; there’s a sense of intuitiveness in the music-making that makes it really exciting. This is not a cautious, careful group.”

Part of what makes the CSO so successful, Eban said, is the leadership of Maestro Milanov.

“Our brilliant conductor Rossen Milanov keeps things fresh. When he first took the help of the Chautauqua Symphony, he said he’s all about character. There is a phrase in music that playing is about communication, not perfection. This particular group, with this conductor, values really emotionally bold and courageous playing,” Eban said. “Milanov loves that and encourages his players; there is a sense of bonding through music among colleagues that I’ve been sitting next to for so many years.”

Tags : Chautauqua Symphony OrchestracsoEli EbanJaren AtherholtJeffrey RobinsonMozart’s SinfoniaRoger KazaRossen MilanovTchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4
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The author Gabriel Weber