Maestro Martin Majkut Ups the Ante Again With An Outstanding Concert to Open the RVS Season
– by Lee Greene
A year ago, when the Rogue Valley Symphony opened up their 2014-2015 season, Music Director Martin Majkut’s fifth at the helm of the organization, I wrote:
“Five years ago when Martin Majkut took over the reigns as Music Director of the Rogue Valley Symphony, he quickly transformed a moribund little local orchestra into a top notch regional symphony 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. One might well wonder if he could keep it up after 5 years. Friday evening, when the Symphony launched Masterworks Concert I of the 2014-2015 season, we got the answer, and it was a resounding “YES!” In fact, after 5 years, the Rogue Valley Symphony and their concert program seem to have gotten even better.” [Chef Majkut Serves Up a Winning Feast as Rogue Valley Symphony Opens Its Season, http://performingarts.reviews/2014/10/04/rvs-2014-2015-masterworks-1/; emphases added.]
That opening concert, and the season that followed, were so superlative, consistently outstanding, and unquestionably memorable, that one can be forgiven for lapsing into the belief that Maestro Majkut could never top that and would face a difficult task to even equal it. Well, I’m here writing today to testify to the fallacy of that belief. The Rogue Valley Symphony opened its 2015-2016 season (Maestro Majkut’s sixth in charge) on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015 at the S. O. U. Music Recital Hall in Ashland with a fantastic concert that even surpassed in all salient respects the milestone concerts of the past season. All the pieces were put in place, and tweaked to perfection by the amazing, supremely gifted, and hard-working Mr. Majkut.
Let’s begin with the offering of new pieces of music. The main piece on the program Friday evening, representing the entire second half after the intermission, was Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 is an exquisite symphony, presenting some truly beautiful music, including gorgeous string runs and a famously unique battle between two sets of tympani, not found anywhere else in the symphonic repertoire. It is also an extremely complex composition, and very difficult to perform, and I doubt that it has been played very many times before, anywhere in Southern Oregon by any orchestra.
Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 “presents some unique problems to the interpreter. . . . Robert Simpson [leading chronicler of Carl Nielsen and his work] devotes nearly a page to ‘features that can lead the exhibitionist conductor astray’, mostly relating to matters of tempo.” [Wikipedia, Symphony No. 4 (Nielsen), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._4_%28Nielsen%29] But Mr. Majkut is not one to be led astray. Right up till the last minute before taking the stage after intermission to conduct the piece, he was found in his dressing room pouring over the score, to master every last minutiae of the complex tempos. The result should not be a surprise. To quote a comment on the performance by one of the two tympanists, “The orchestra is killin’ it!” [Hal Davis, https://www.facebook.com/hal.davis.315?fref=nf]
One interesting bit of minutiae elegantly reveals the depth of Mr. Majkut’s commitment to getting it right, as well as his effort to draw “quality musicians into the orchestra.” The Nielsen piece includes ONE (yes, that’s right, not a misprint, not an exaggeration, but ONE) note for a contrabassoon, which occurs at the opening of the coda of the fourth movement. Mr. Majkut got bassoonist Kristopher King from San Francisco to travel all the way to the Rogue Valley, and to bring his BIG, heavy, bulky contrabassoon, to play THAT note in the Nielsen symphony. [Not that Mr. King’s travel and participation with the Rogue Valley Symphony were in any way wasted; Mr. Majkut put Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, which includes an extensive contrabassoon part, on the program as the opening number, giving Mr. King some more work in this concert; but that just illustrates Majkut’s “knack for assembling compelling and exciting concert programs” – nothing goes to waste].
Discussing the performance of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Mr. Majkut noted: “It is full and rich . . . we played it ‘con brio’ – with a lot of energy. What a wonderful evening.” There’s that “bringing high energy to the task” element that I applauded in reviewing last season’s opening concert. In complete honesty, the energy brought to the performance of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 in this year’s opening concert really did exceed the exemplary energy evident during last season’s concerts. Mr. Majkut did top what he’s done before. Stop reading and wondering if I’m accurately describing the performance and instead listen for yourself. Here’s just a little three minute sample from the performance. I almost guarantee that you’ll be impressed with the energy, the tightness of the well conducted orchestra, and the splendor and beauty of the music you’ll hear in this clip:
That brief clip effectively establishes that the entire orchestra was at the top of their game for that performance. There are wonderful contributions from all parts, a lush string run, notable passages by flute, clarinet, brass, and of course that awesome battle of the tympani (Special kudos to timpanists Theresa McCoy and Hal Davis). Mr. Makjut brought out the best from everyone in the orchestra and all wonderfully in sync with one another and himself. And THAT was only the second half of the program.
As already mentioned, Mr. Makjut began the program, and the season, with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. That overture to Glinka’s opera is a lively, lush, melodic composition, which is “one of the best known orchestral showpieces in the West and known for being a nightmare for bassists.” [Wikipedia, Ruslan and Lyudmila (opera), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruslan_and_Lyudmila_%28opera%29] Of course, Maestro Majkut had the basses well prepared, and they and the rest of the orchestra, performed the piece flawlessly. The composition mixes passages alternately loud and quiet, and can be accurately described as “rollicking” quite a bit of the time. It really requires close attention to the conductor and the score. So it was a perfect piece to start the orchestra off on a new season, knocking off all the cobwebs and hitting the starting line at full throttle.
The next piece after Ruslan and Lyudmila satisfied the remaining salutary element recited in the description of last year’s opening concert – the “A” list soloist. The highlight piece during the first half of the program, before intermission, was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor featuring piano soloist Stanislav Khristenko. Mr. Kristenko, a Ukrainian born pianist, who was trained first at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and then at the Cleveland Institute of Music, is a “AAA” list soloist. He is a “Steinway Artist”, who between 1998 and 2013 has won at least 23 prizes, competitions and awards. [If you need to see the list, check Wikipedia, Stanislav Khristenko, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Khristenko]
Piano Concerto No. 2 is arguably Rachmaninoff’s most popular and enduring piece. It is incredibly beautiful, and highly romantic. Bits of the piece have been used over and over in popular culture as part of film scores, from David Lean’s 1945 Brief Encounter, to Billy Wilder’s 1955 The Seven Year Itch, to Clint Eastwood’s 2010 Hereafter, as well as in commercials, and even in an Olympic gymnastics routine (Russian gymnast Daria Dmitrieva’s 2012 Summer Olympics hoop routine). When asked in a pre-concert lecture session, what was the most difficult thing for the soloist in playing Piano Concerto No. 2, Mr. Kristenko replied that the piece is so beautiful that the pianist has to exercise extra care to not fall into listening to it, instead of concentrating on the soloist’s piano part.
I can happily report that never happened to Mr. Kristenko during the performance with the Rogue Valley Symphony. His piano contribution was a revelation and thrill. He is all passion, throws his whole body into playing the instrument, often with his eyes closed, tossing his head exuberantly. The piece mixes loud emphatic piano passages with soft quiet delicate ones. During the latter, Mr. Kristenko gently caressed the keys, exhibiting a perfect deft touch, to achieve Rachmaninoff’s intended effect. Mr. Majkut had the orchestra blending wonderfully with the piano, all the sections were absolutely in tempo, in tune, and well mixed, no one was too loud or too soft. There was wonderful interplay between the flutes and piano (well done flautists Katy McElrath, Debra Harris & Peny Austin), and several exquisite clarinet passages (kudos to clarinetist Lori Calhoun). The final movement featured some finesse percussion playing, including cymbals first played ever so softly and then crashing loudly (Mr. Davis again), leading up to the dramatic, emphatic, boisterous conclusion of the piece. The outstanding performance of Piano Concerto No. 2, and Mr. Kristenko in particular, had the audience buzzing long after the conclusion of the concert.
After the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff piece, the audience provided a raucous standing ovation, brought Messrs. Kristenko and Majkut back for several curtain calls, and finally pressed Mr. Kristenko to return for an encore. Mr. Kristenko proceeded to bowl over the audience with a striking performance of a portion of the piano part of one of the most romantic pieces in the piano repertoire, Robert Schumann’s Lieder song, Widmung, written in homage to his love, Clara Wieck, at a time he was prohibited by her father from seeing her (of course she eventually, famously, became his wife). Mr. Kristenko performed a transcription of the piece for piano by the great Franz Lizst. After more applause and curtain calls, it was intermission, and Mr. Majkut was off to his dressing room to review the fine points of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4.
There is little doubt about it: as unlikely as it might have seemed prior to the concert, Mr. Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony had exceeded the superior level achieved in the concerts of the previous season. Mr. Majkut has upped the ante yet another notch once again. The program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Craterian Theater in Medford, and again at 3:00 pm on Sunday, Sept. 27 at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass. If you are any kind of a fan of classical music, these are “must see” concerts. So, go!