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RVS 2014-2015 Masterworks 2

Piano soloist Tanya Gabrielian performing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Rogue Valley Symphony, under the direction of Martin Majkut, at 2014-2015 Masterworks Concert II at SOU Music Recital Hall, Ashland, OR on November 7, 2014.

Maestro Majkut Conjures Up a Kick-Ass Symphony Concert

– by Lee Greene

One would not ordinarily associate the term, “kick-ass” with a symphony concert. So how does it come to be applied to the second concert of the 2014-2015 season by the Rogue Valley Symphony? Well, the term was originally tendered to describe piano soloist, Tanya Gabrielian’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in this concert by a mutual friend of Ms. Gabrielian’s and myself, a professional symphony cellist who is well qualified to critique concert performances, and usually quite accurate in her assessments. Being a thorough, as well as curious, reviewer, I decided to look the term up and find out what it actually means. According to, the definition of kick-ass is “strikingly or overwhelmingly tough, aggressive, powerful, or effective”.

Pianist Tanya Gabrielian

Pianist Tanya Gabrielian

Hmm. No question about it, Ms. Gabrielian’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in this concert was definitely kick-ass. Strikingly tough, powerful and effective is an accurate description of Ms. Gabrielian’s delivery of the most popular French Piano concerto of all time. It also happens to be an incredibly difficult piece for the pianist and the orchestra as well: lots of notes, played fast, and even faster as the piece progresses. Saint-Saëns mixed a wide variety of styles in the piece, a veritable musical potpourri. Portions of the piece have variously been described as “a Bach fantasia”, “a long ad libitum cadenza”, “a mercurial piano part”, “clever and light hearted themes”, “an extremely fast, fiery tarantella in sonata form”. And the conclusion has been described thusly: “At presto speed, the orchestra and soloist rush tumultuously along, gaining volume and momentum and finishing in a whirlwind of G minor arpeggios.”
[quotes from Wikipedia:ëns)].

When the piece is well done, it’s wonderful, a musical showpiece, which is how it comes to be the most popular French piano concerto. But when it’s not well done – Stojowski famously quipped that it “begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.” Saint-Saëns himself was the soloist at the premiere of Piano Concerto No. 2, and famously had little time to prepare to perform the piece, with the consequence that the premiere did not go very well, and the piece was not well received at the premiere. By contrast, Ms. Gabrielian made Piano Concerto No. 2 look easy and sound magnificent. Somehow she provided a truly muscular performance of this difficult piece, while making it look graceful. Previous reviewers assessing other performances of other works by Ms. Gabrielian have various commented that she “is a presence, a force to be reckoned with. . . .” [Peninsula Reviews], “a pianist of powerful physical and imaginative muscle.”[London Times], “Herculean keyboard demands were met with a strikingly poised nobility and a commanding presence.” [Washington Post], and “She has the sensitivity to caress the beautiful melodic phrases and the power to bring off mammoth climaxes. . . .” [American Record Guide]. She was all that and more in providing a masterful performance of Piano Concerto No. 2 that would have made Saint-Saëns himself proud; if only she had been around for the premiere, how much better things would have gone. So kick-ass turns out to be an apt description of Ms. Gabrielian’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2. But her kick-ass piano performing did not end there. When the audience made her return for a third bow to continuous applause, she sat down for an encore which was just as strikingly and overwhelmingly effective. She thrilled the audience with an extraordinary, incomparable performance of Glinka’s piano song, The Lark, which she confessed was her favorite piano piece – and just like that it became the favorite piano piece of a broad swath of the audience too.

To borrow a much used pitchman phrase, “But wait there’s more!” When asked at the pre-concert lecture, how she came to be performing Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 at this concert (she hasn’t played the piece in concert very often since first tackling it at the age of 13), she pointed at Maestro Majkut and explained “HE hired me to play it.” In reviewing the first concert of the Rogue Valley Symphony season last month, I noted that Maestro Majkut had transformed this orchestra, “bringing high energy to the task of running the orchestra and it’s musicians, offering new pieces of music as well as a fresh outlook and insight into the standard classical repertoire, drawing quality musicians into the orchestra and “A” list soloists to join in its performances, and demonstrating an uncanny knack for assembling compelling and exciting concert programs.” The question then was could he continue to keep it up. Well, he’s done it once again for this concert – it’s ALL here: the A list soloist, a new piece of music, and a compelling and exciting concert program. That unforgettable performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 by a remarkable piano soloist came out of Maestro Majkut’s vision and was his doing – he conjured it and made it happen. And that was only one third of this concert program.

For the first piece on the program, Maestro Majkut applied his fresh outlook and insight to 19th century French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz’s Love Scene from his “dramatic symphony” for voices, chorus and orchestra, Roméo et Juliette. Towards the end of his life, Berlioz, who composed a prodigious body of works and is most famous for his Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem) identified this romantic Love Scene as his favorite composition. Maestro Majkut says “I also fell for this Love Scene and had actually programmed it before I knew of the quote. In the Love Scene, Berlioz exquisitely captures the innocence, the budding feelings and finally the tender expressions of affection between the two young lovers.” And of course, Maestro Majkut successfully leads the orchestra in realizing that vision and expressing all of those elements in performing the piece. The orchestra, following Maestro Majkut, presented a kick-ass performance of this Berlioz romantic piece: strikingly effective. Do you need some tangible proof of the validity of that claim? Then listen to this one minute excerpt recording from the Berlioz performance in this concert:

One minute excerpt: Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet: Love Scene performed by the Rogue Valley Symphony, under the direction of Martin Majkut, at 2014-2015 Masterworks Concert II at SOU Music Recital Hall, Ashland, OR on November 7, 2014.

There was yet still more. After intermission, the final piece on the program was the new piece Maestro Majkut offered to the audience, the largely unknown to most in attendance, Symphony No. 4 subtitled “Deliciae Basilienses” (“The Delights of Basel”) by the 20th century Swiss composer, Arthur Honegger. It is a lovely, very appealing and quite interesting piece, but largely unheard, not often played. Unless, of course, your orchestra is under the baton of the remarkable Martin Majkut. Honegger composed the piece after the end of World War II. He had largely been stuck in war-ravaged France for the duration of the war, which depressed him greatly. But he did manage to temporarily escape for some brief relaxation in the beautiful and untainted Swiss countryside of his youth. Symphony No. 4 is an expression of the composer’s happiness and joy during his stay in the Swiss countryside during the war. Among other interesting elements, including 6 musicals themes weaved together through the piece, Honegger incorporates two Basel folk songs in the piece. Maestro Majkut broke with tradition and spoke at length with the audience introducing Symphony No. 4 before launching into the performance. He explained and the orchestra played snippets of the 6 themes, as well as the two Basel folk songs, so the audience would be able to hear and understand what was going on in the piece as it was performed. With that guidance from Maestro Majkut, the audience clearly appreciated and enjoyed the “new piece”. The audience responded at the conclusion of the work with an enthusiastic and robust reception.

So it’s fair to say, and an apt description, that the whole concert was truly kick-ass, not just Tanya Gabrielian and the Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto. The program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Craterian Theater in Medford, and again at 3:00 pm on Sunday, Nov. 9 at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass. If you have any interest in experiencing a kick-ass symphony concert, then get to one of those remaining performances.

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This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on November 8, 2015 at