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A Conductor Wields a Baton Across Cultures

The conductor Rossen Milanov balances two approaches when leading an orchestra.

“I’m a Slavic person,” said Mr. Milanov, who was born in Bulgaria. “I don’t know whether it’s cliché or not to say so, but certainly we like to wear our hearts on our sleeve.”

“On the other hand,” he said before a recent rehearsal of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, of which he is the music director, “I was trained by a German professor, and that approach is a little more rational. So I have a certain connection to the emotional intensity of a piece, but I work hard to put it in a rational frame. There’s a cohesion that happens.”

Cohesion — the ability to fuse disparate parts — has been a motif of sorts for Mr. Milanov’s tenure at the Princeton Symphony, which will perform “La Noche Española,” a Spanish-themed concert, Jan. 19 at the Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus. Since taking over in 2010, he has worked to enhance the musical experience for what he called his “highly intelligent, sophisticated audience here” by weaving additional learning opportunities into the group’s concerts.

“We have a unique type of audience in Princeton that wants to be challenged intellectually, to explore things as deeply as they can be explored,” Mr. Milanov said in an interview at the Princeton Public Library. Thus Mr. Milanov will lead a preconcert talk about a 2012 concerto by the Spanish composer Óscar Navarro that the orchestra will perform with the Spanish clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester during “La Noche Española.” The talk will touch on other pieces to be performed, including Spanish-inspired works by Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier and Claude Debussy.

For Mr. Milanov, “La Noche Española” also offers the chance to celebrate his own appreciation of Spanish culture. In addition to leading the Princeton symphony, he is in his second season as principal conductor of Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias in Oviedo, Spain. He said that ever since he started in Oviedo he had wanted to present the concert in Princeton.

“I believe very strongly in this idea of cultural cross-pollination,” Mr. Milanov said. “Spaniards, from Cervantes to all their fantastic painters to their medieval history to their more current history, have influenced so much of the world.”

Mr. Milanov, who will turn 49 on Jan. 13, may be better qualified than most to say so, since in addition to leading 10 concerts a year in Princeton and 25 with the Spanish orchestra, he routinely travels the world as a guest conductor. “Last year I was on five different continents,” he said.

His brother and father live in Bulgaria, and he has no family in Philadelphia, where he has lived since 2000. “The orchestra becomes your family. You become like their father,” he said.

Behind the music stand, during a recent rehearsal, he was an encouraging father. “Very nice, lovely as always,” he said, addressing the musicians during a break.

At the same time, he can be demanding; for example, most Princeton concerts include at least one piece composed within the last 50 years.

“He takes risks. He’s not afraid to explore, and that energy translates to the orchestra and to the audience,” said Kiri Murakami, a violinist who recently moved to San Francisco but continues to travel to New Jersey for concerts, and serves as the orchestra’s general manager.

Mr. Milanov’s paternal leanings may be especially apparent in a third group he leads. Symphony in C, based in Camden, is a training orchestra to allow musicians who are either students in college music programs and conservatories or recent graduates to “hone their work,” as he put it. “They’re all young people,” said Mr. Milanov, who has been the music director there for 14 years.

                           “Most of the time, my job at Symphony in C is to say, ‘O.K., let’s pace ourselves,’ “
he said, citing the young players’ “excessive enthusiasm.”
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