It is a Thursday evening in early autumn. Football weather. Outside the Kimmel Center, the West Chester University marching band is blasting out the team fight song. Mascots for other Philadelphia area colleges: the Villanova Wildcat, the Temple Owl: are dancing around on the pavement in front of the black granite wall. There is no visible tailgating, but inside the performing arts center, Restaurant Associates is preparing tray after tray of hoagies for a post-event party.
This is The Philadelphia Orchestra? Or did we head too far south on Broad Street?
Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov, who will be on the podium this particular evening for a free concert for college students, sees no reason why a night in the concert hall shouldn't inspire the same unbridled enthusiasm as game day. "Come and see why so many people are crazy about classical music," says the maestro who, admittedly no sports fan, says he tries to take the same approach when attending a ballgame. "I try to be very open-minded," says Milanov, "to understand what makes people so excited and crazy about something."
Sparking interest among those on the sidelines is all part of the job for Milanov and The Philadelphia Orchestra's newly appointed assistant conductor, Danail Rachev. As leaders of the Orchestra's School, Family, and Neighborhood concerts, the two are vital in bringing the Orchestra to listeners outside the traditional Verizon Hall subscription audience, a cornerstone of the Orchestra's mission.
Both artists bring passion and energy to the task. Milanov's ardor, palpable in an informal backstage conversation, is contagious. He smiles readily while talking about the challenges. "We are translators," he explains. "For the people who can't read music, it could be ... following the instructions of a secret code."
So secret that people sometimes "have difficulty figuring out exactly what classical music is." But it's okay, says Milanov, even charming, when a new listener says he liked "that song" instead of "that symphony." What's important, Milanov says, is to get people excited about trying something new.
Enter community initiatives, like the free Neighborhood Concerts. The music may not be familiar, but the environment is, eliminating one potential obstacle to experiencing what Milanov calls "a great treasure of the world culture." The Neighborhood Concert Series, sponsored for the past five years by Wachovia, is designed to break down barriers by bringing the music to people where they live. Most recently, the Orchestra performed at Philadelphia's City Hall, and in Camden, New Jersey.
The Orchestra reaches an estimated 140,000 adults and 35,000 young people each year through its various educational and outreach activities. Milanov says he has been stopped on the street by young people who remember him from a concert, or perhaps from the series of Orchestra "baseball cards" given out to members of PhilOrch Kids, the Orchestra's membership program for children. (Who knew, for example, that violinist Paul Arnold dreams of playing shortstop for the Yankees or that Principal Percussion Chris Deviney, pictured on his card in an Eagles jersey, would like to be an NFL referee if he weren't a musician?)
Children may be underexposed to classical music because of lack of education in the schools, not to mention increasing competition from the internet and TV, but Milanov focuses on their desire to learn and their "incredible enthusiasm for the music." "Everyone of us is a little kid," says Milanov, "or has been a kid. I remember the time I was that age. Everything that was going on onstage was magical for me."
Rachev also draws on the visceral impact of that first concert experience. Listening at the age of six or seven, he says he doesn't remember the piece, but he'll never forget "the strength of the experience."
It is "an enormous pleasure and privilege, an absolute dream come true," says Rachev of his new role with the world famous orchestra whose recordings he listened to as a child. Rachev, the first ever conducting fellow of the New World Symphony, comes to Philadelphia from the Dallas Symphony, where he also led Family concerts, school, and outreach programs that enabled the orchestra to reach people who would otherwise never come near classical music. "Kids are so honest about what they like," says Rachev. "They might not know what classical music is, but they come and we capture their imagination. They will remember the powerful feeling they had at that moment."
Milanov, who has been with The Philadelphia Orchestra since 2000, is artistic director of the Philadelphians' summer season at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts. He also serves as music director of New Jersey's Symphony in C (formerly the Haddonfield Symphony) and the New Symphony Orchestra in his native Sofia, Bulgaria, and chief conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony. He attended free Philadelphia Orchestra concerts while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music. "Working with this orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, exceeds even my wildest dreams," says Milanov.
Both conductors stress the importance of live performance. Sure, you can listen to a recording at home or, more accurately these days, download an electronic file onto your iPod, but that can't replace the group experience. "You have to be present," insists Milanov. "Everything is unique, guaranteed, for just that night."
During that free concert for college students featuring a program of Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Lutosławski, Milanov uses the sports analogy again, quipping that the performance, a day before the first subscription concerts, is "very much like the pre-games of the season."
He uses his time at the podium to appeal to the young audience to make the concert hall "a regular entertainment option. Attend a live concert with your friends," he urges. "Experience something emotional together."
It is also helpful, says Rachev, for young audiences to see the youth of some of the current musicians. At the same free student performance, made possible with support from the Neubauer Family Foundation, the audience is welcomed from the stage by violinist Noah Geller, who introduces himself as a recent college grad, having just completed his training at the Juilliard School in May.
"It is important for young people to see people their age are so passionate about classical music," says Rachev who, when asked what he is most looking forward to in his inaugural season in Philadelphia, has a simple reply: "Everything."
Milanov and Rachev are, coincidentally, both from Bulgaria, a relatively small nation of eight million. They studied at the same conservatory. Now, however, both make their homes in Philadelphia. When they conduct community concerts, it is their community they are reaching out to, a community in which, with the Orchestra's efforts, they are being increasingly recognized. Says Milanov: "I walk on stage and I feel like a rock star."
Margie Smith is a Philadelphia- based writer and journalist. She is former director of communications for The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and was the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra's Global Concert Series last season.