Oriental Airs Waft Through Ambassador Auditorium

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Rossen Milanov (center) standing to receive the audience’s applause at the end of their evening concert on Feb. 18.
The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Rossen Milanov (center) standing to receive the audience’s applause at the end of their evening concert on Feb. 18.


Open up any national newspaper today and news about the Middle East is likely to be at or near the front page. This fascination – and often fear – of the Middle East may seem to be a recent phenomenon. But in truth the west has for centuries viewed their peers in the Middle East with equal parts awe and trepidation.

Nowhere has this been demonstrated better than through music, where the contribution of the Orient has been deeper than the casual listener may notice. Going back at least to the Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, European composers found their attention seized by the Janissary mehteran – the Ottoman military bands – whose sonorities were incorporated into works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Composers of the 19th century were no less besotted with the region; in particular the Russians of the “Mighty Five” whose best known works have become etched into the popular consciousness as Orientalia par excellence.

That seductiveness of the Middle East on many western ears was amply displayed on Saturday by the Pasadena Symphony, which was joined by guest pianist Esther Keel and conductor Rossen Milanov.

Striding onto the podium with a broad smile, Milanov opened the concert with an exciting rendition of Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” That excitement was also of the visceral sort: Milanov’s lean form with his arms swooping wildly one moment, his face cringed in ecstatic throes the next was certainly a sight to see.

However, the real revelation of the evening was the playing of Esther Keel in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto No. 5,” nicknamed the “Egyptian.” In a recent interview, Keel mentioned that the idea to play with this work originated with the Pasadena Symphony, not with her. No matter – she lavished upon it such care and energy as a musician would to a work that occupied a well-loved place in their repertoire.

Especially impressive was her handling of the concerto’s slow movement, where her prismatic colors and well-honed sense of lyricism paid dividends in this movement’s mood of melancholy rumination. This work’s qualities, with its sometimes reticent gestures that are unusual in a Romantic era concerto, played to Keel’s most attractive traits. But Keel knew when to call in the proverbial big guns too, as she did with her dazzling rendition of the work’s finale, which gained her the audience’s well-deserved and very warm approbation.

Returning after intermission was Milanov, this time leading a sturdy rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherazade.” A concerto for orchestra in all but name, it was an excellent work to show off the Pasadena Symphony’s strengths. The solo violin of concertmaster Aimee Kreston was a richly expressive Scheherazade, playing with tenderness and, when needed, plangent tone. No less beautiful were the playing of principal flute David Shostac and principal clarinetist Donald Foster, just two of the standouts from Pasadena’s superb wind section.

Milanov’s interpretation, while compelling at times, felt rather too broad, thus leading to the work sounding distended at points. No question that he is more than able to summon excitement when needed. The sweeping closing bars of the work were sufficient testimony to his abilities. But one felt that a total grasp of the work’s structure eluded him, lending the music an episodic feel.

Nonetheless, Milanov remains a talent to watch – one certainly to remain welcome in Pasadena.