The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), based in south-suburban Park Forest, is celebrating its 40th season, and the orchestra welcomes a new face to the podium: conductor Stilian Kirov. A native of Bulgaria, Kirov is a graduate of the Juilliard School, and he has held associate conductor positions at the Seattle Symphony and Memphis Symphony. Kirov recently shared his musical journey to become a conductor as well as his goals for the IPO to reach the Chicago Southland community and beyond.
Even though my parents are not professional musicians, I grew up in a musical family. I was lucky in this respect. My parents made sure to introduce music in our lives. I attended all kinds of concerts, and I listened to a lot of jazz. It was a musically diverse childhood, and just having this early exposure was formative.
I am from Bulgaria, and the country has a strong musical tradition. There is of course great classical music, but there is also great traditional music, with dances and songs. Bulgaria is a very small country, but each region has its own musical flavor.
My favorite Bulgarian composer is Pancho Vladigerov. I will introduce this wonderful piece, [Improvisation and Toccata], to the IPO, and it will be featured on our November 2017 concert. I think the audience will love it.
When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I knew I wanted to pursue music as a profession. In Bulgaria, you have to make a decision about entering a regular school or music school, and each has entrance exams. I got into both, and I decided to follow music. My parents said, “Well, whatever you do, we support you, but you cannot blame us for anything later on.” [Laughs] They were joking of course, but they supported me to follow my dream.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a conductor at first. In music school, we had to perform in the choir and orchestra. I was mainly playing piano and oboe, and that was when I started to fall in love with the conductor’s craft. My first time conducting was in front of the choir. I occasionally conducted the orchestra, and I had a very supportive teacher who gave me lessons.
The biggest piece of musical advice I’ve received is from the great conductor Bernard Haitink. He said, “You know, I’m over 80 years old, and I’m still learning about music.” You always have to look for improvement and contribute to make the music more meaningful. The search to be an artist should be about what you can give to an audience or community.
My ultimate goal as music director of the IPO is to serve the community. Every community is different, so you want to get to know the community and find ways to make a difference in people’s lives with music. For the orchestra itself, the goal of course is artistic and financial growth, and that will allow us to present more concerts and create more projects to reach Chicago Southland and beyond.
We can’t get caught up with the technicalities of music. You learn the notes, rhythms, dynamics, but we have to remind ourselves that these are just the tools to create characters and emotions for a meaningful performance. Music should serve the purpose of expression – I remind myself of this every time I open a score.