He stands, arms raised — the audience hanging on stillness. His baton wafts up then comes down with a stirring dichotomy of motion — a fluidity and precision commanding a sound that could move mountains.
“We want to give the audience not only emotional pleasure, but the experience of discovering a completely different world behind the music,” says Bulgarian-born master conductor Milen Nachev of the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. “You see people from the audience say they cried, but they don’t know why.”
Nachev — honoured with awards for Outstanding Musical Leadership by the Vatican City in Rome, Foundation Napoleon in Paris, and the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture — believes what he is now doing with Shen Yun to be the pinnacle of his illustrious life’s work, a metaphysical journey in music.
“We are capable of communicating with the audience not only through the surface of the music, but at a deeper layer of inner meaning,” he says. As he’s cultivated his craft up to today, Nachev has discovered a new universe within his profession — a marriage of sound, substance and selflessness.
A conductor’s journey usually begins like most musicians — with a singular instrument. Though Nachev’s approach was similar, his ascension wasn’t. At age 5, his grandmother took him to his first piano lesson. “I believe this first encounter with music changed my life completely,
forever,” he says. A mere year later, with the urging of his empowering teacher, Nachev entered and won a national piano competition in his age group.
A few years later, a 9-year-old Nachev’s natural musical gifts were germinating. Without having seen the music score, he began conducting Brahms Symphony No. 4 by memory at home. “The physical contact between the music and the gestures were extremely inspiring for me,” he says.
This music-body connection while conducting — an artistic medium that floats between leading and following — would be cultivated as more masters were laid out in Nachev’s tuneful path. At the world-famous Saint Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, the prodigy studied under Professor Ilya Musin, who also taught Yuri Temirkanov, Valery Gergiev and many more acclaimed conductors.
Until a person has studied conducting, it’s impossible to know what it entails — the richness and complexity, the fine-tuned intuition and trust — layer upon subtle layer of understanding and nuance. To start, “you must be extremely well prepared, with the history of music, and knowledge about the capacity of every instrument in the orchestra.”
Musin, of course, imparted physical technique and how to clearly communicate with the orchestra, but he went far beyond that, offering theoretical and practical ways on how “to make the orchestra believe in their own capabilities,” says Nachev. “He wasn’t only my conducting teacher — he was my second father.”
With his teacher’s wisdom, Nachev saw clearly that his role was not perfunctory at all in nature. “You have to be a psychologist,” he says. “Our work is not with instruments — we are working with people who are playing instruments. Your only desire is to see in their eyes that your behavior on the podium is a source of inspiration for them, making them eager to give their very, very best on stage.”
Leading the Way
After eight years as the artistic director and conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor of numerous high profile symphonies in Eastern Europe, Nachev joined Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra in 2012, a group of musicians whose mission resounds as deeply as its melodies.
“I found my place,” Nachev says about joining Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra, part of the New York-based dance troupe that’s inspired millions while restoring 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture. “Of course, I had the opportunity to lead one of the European orchestras, but I wanted to prove myself in a completely different situation. When I arrived in the United States, not many people knew about me, so I had to start from scratch and wait for many years for this opportunity.”
Shen Yun’s mission to preserve traditional Chinese culture touched Nachev personally. During the 1960s, “it was not only traditional Chinese culture that was almost completely destroyed,” he says. “But also many of my favourite classical Western composers, poets, novelists and painters were destroyed — literally, their works were destroyed. I call this a crime against humanity. The world’s multi-century artistic heritage, destroyed in just a few short years.”
Not only would Shen Yun preserve past forms of music and art, but it was crafting an entirely new sound altogether, as the first orchestra to blend classical Eastern and Western instruments, a balancing act that’s always being perfected.
“We know that music is an international language,” Nachev says. “I’ve had to develop my musical intuition for many, many years, working with different styles, with different pieces by different composers from different countries who lived in different centuries.”
Shen Yun’s original musical pieces are based on ancient Chinese melodies and then developed into new pieces of classical Western music. To harmonize the rainbow of sounds, Nachev immersed himself in Chinese folk music to better understand the capacity of signature Chinese instruments like the erhu, pipa and suona. “Once the door of your consciousness is open, you can easily find the right tempo, articulation and phrasing,” he says.
The difficulty and challenge of synthesizing the sounds from such different cultures brings a unique joy. “It’s like a secret code inside the musical text that we bring out to the audience,” he says. “It’s not necessary for them to understand the secret code, but the effect and the resonance is there.”
Nachev attributes Shen Yun’s unique sound to more than the music’s masterful arrangement. For him, he says, Shen Yun “is not only professional development, but the orchestra is in deep harmony with my soul and what I feel about the world.”
Nachev and the other members of the orchestra practice a mind-body cultivation system called Falun Dafa. Meditating together daily, the conductor says allows “a different level of communication. This spiritual exchange and communication between us is something transcendental, beyond words.”
To better explain this intangible interplay, he says, “Two days ago, we rehearsed a piece for three erhu solos accompanied by the symphony orchestra. During the process, without words, just watching the eyes of the three soloists, I already knew what they needed — what kind of tempo, what kind of support, and how we could develop the phrase together. My feeling was that they also implicitly understood. When I desired to start the phrase from one point and bring it to the arrival point, they were completely with me — without one word between us.”
With such graceful precision, Nachev believes this metaphysical connection forges a new realm of perceptible pleasure. “We want every single detail inside the score to be so clear and articulate that we bring a different spectrum of colours behind the melody. We’re working in many dimensions. If you take a look at the conductor’s score, not only vertically — like harmony, balance, orchestration — but also horizontally, we are using every single way to make the music more impressive, and to create a really serious impact for our audience.”
Produced by Echo Li
Print article originally published in September 2016