Rogue Valley Symphonic Band Ups The Bar, Tackles Complex Pieces Beautifully Under New Director
– by Lee Greene
I have famously been following and reporting on the progressing transition of Rogue Valley Symphony (RVS) from “a moribund little local orchestra into a top notch regional symphony orchestra” [Chef Majkut Serves Up a Winning Feast as Rogue Valley Symphony Opens Its Season, Jacksonville Review, http://bit.ly/1rdQfYJ ] since the reigns of the organization were taken over several years ago by the gifted RVS Music Director Martin Majkut. [See also, Maestro Martin Majkut Ups the Ante Again With An Outstanding Concert to Open the RVS Season, http://bit.ly/1VLeIdJ; Rogue Valley Symphony’s Masterworks 2 Concert: Now Even Outperforming Major Metropolitan Orchestras, http://bit.ly/1RunuWY; Rogue Valley Symphony Masterworks Concert 3: A Celebration of Unsurpassed Beauty, http://bit.ly/1RVEvx7; Exquisite Guitar Soloist Highlights RV Symphony’s Latest Concert Triumph; http://bit.ly/1LQqzCR]
Now I’m beginning to see a similar change in another local Southern Oregon performing arts organization, the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band (RVSB). Intending no disrespect to anyone, RVSB historically has more or less limped along, a continually changing group of unpaid musicians under a shuffling progression of undercompensated volunteer leaders (10 leaders, some in and out again several times, in 27 years), sporadically performing often unexceptional concerts of mixed quality at a kaleidoscope of different, and often problematic, venues. But something remarkable has happened to the organization during the 2015-2016 season. Like the RVS’s transformation, it begins with new leadership. Just as the fortunes of the RVS changed upon finding and putting in place the gifted Martin Majkut as Music Director, who has more or less been a savior for that organization, the RVSB was able to snatch up the very talented Dan Kocurek to take the reigns of the Symphonic Band. And just like that, everything RVSB is suddenly different and much better.
Dan Kocurek is a multi-talented musician, virtuoso trumpet player, international touring concert soloist, chamber musician, studio musician, conductor, clinician, and music educator. A Canadian-American, Mr. Kocurek received a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Oregon and a Masters of Music from the University of British Columbia. He received his formal classical training under the tutelage of Brian McWhorter, Larry Knopp, and Marty Berinbaum. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes in both classical and jazz idioms, notably tuition scholarships at the Manhattan School of Music and the Chicago Conservatory of Performing Arts. He has since made good on his talent, as the lead trumpet in the world-renowned Dallas Brass, performing throughout North America and in collaboration with other notable performing artists, including Jens Lindemann, Mark Gould, Ryan Anthony, Marty Hackleman, Alain Trudel, Nancy DiNovo, and Bobby Shew, among many others. He has been in demand as a featured soloist on many programs, ranging from baroque trumpet masterpieces to transcriptions of cello works on his custom four-valve Flugelhorn. These include multiple appearances with the University of British Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, and Chamber Strings as well as with the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Pro Nova Ensemble, and the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra. He has established himself as an international touring concert soloist in tandem with his wife, Christine Eggert, on piano. Performing together as Les Deux, the couple have been called a “musical powerhouse” whose programs have been hailed as being “musically provocative, presented with charm and a deliciously human touch.” In addition to his noteworthy career as a trumpet virtuoso, Mr. Kocurek has enjoyed considerable success as a conductor. He has been artistic director of the Vancouver Peace Choir and the Elgar String Orchestra and has worked in that capacity with the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble, the UBC Summer Music Institute, and the Whistler Music Festival.
In 2015, Mr. Kocurek and his wife, Christine Eggert, accepted dual appointments to the faculty at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University (OCASOU) and took up residence in Ashland. Mr. Kocurek is a Senior Music Instructor at OCASOU where he leads the trumpet studio, and directs the SOU Jazz Collective, the SOU Raider Band, and the Southern Oregon University Concert Choir. Ms. Eggert also holds an appointment as a Senior Music Instructor at OCASOU. They BOTH have dove head first into the upper ranks of the local music community of the Rogue Valley. In addition to his faculty responsibilities for OCASOU, Mr. Kocurek has become lead trumpet for the Ashland-based Tony Award winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and performs with the Rogue Valley Symphony, for whom he is slated to appear as a featured soloist next season.
So when the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band was once again in search of a new Music Director, in 2015, with the talented Mr. Kocurek fresh on the local music scene, and looking for local opportunities to exercise his conducting muscles, it was an ideal match. Mr. Kocurek brings to the RVSB much of what Maestro Majkut brought to the RVS, facilitating its transformation and improvement: “high energy to the task of running the [organization] and it’s musicians, new pieces of music as well as a fresh outlook and insight into the standard [symphonic band] repertoire, drawing quality musicians into the [band], . . . and demonstrating an uncanny knack for assembling compelling and exciting concert programs.” The two (Kocurek and Majkut) travel in common music community circles; both are affiliated with the Rogue Valley Symphony, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University. They share many musician contacts and collaborations in common, so it’s not surprising that as Maestro Majkut draws new, higher quality musicians to the Rogue Valley Symphony, many of the same high caliber musicians are available for the equally energetic, enthusiastic and creative Mr. Kocurek to pull into the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band. In fact, three of the Symphony’s horn section principal musicians (trumpet, trombone and tuba) and seven Symphony musicians, were on stage performing with the Symphonic Band in the recent Rogue Valley Symphonic Band concert being reviewed here, March 6, 2016’s Sorcerers and Hobbits Concert.
Catchy name isn’t it? Sorcerers and Hobbits Concert. Very creative on the part of Mr. Kocurek. But it’s not just the name that’s creative. The whole concept and the interesting, entertaining and exciting program which Mr. Kocurek assembled for the concert was fresh, new and appealing, for the musicians, as well as the audience. The first of the three pieces on the program was the Mars, Bringer of War movement from Gustav Holst’s seven movement work, The Planets. Mr. Kocurek, who is a true music educator, in addition to being an affable people person, preceded each performance on the program with a short, but very illuminating, introduction of the work to be performed (unlike, and somewhat better than the usually mute Maestro Majkut at Symphony concerts), which was quite nice and tended to make the performed pieces that much more understandable and interesting. So for instance, Mr. Kocurek explained for the audience that the Holst piece is astrologically rather than astronomically based, which is why it doesn’t include a movement for the planet Earth. Each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche. Mars “describes raw Martian impulses: the chaotic energy of youth; the mis-use of the will, the desire for action and the chaotic energy of rebellious youth. Holst has unleashed terrifying sounds from a huge orchestra in the destabilising time of five beats to a bar and with triads that are stacked up on top of each other. . . . In its day it was perceived as modern “European” and has become a much-copied sound for depicting war and violence in films and on the television.” [Raymond Head, Gustav Holst The Planets Suite, Holst Birthplace Museum, http://bit.ly/1LctllQ]. The performance of the work by the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band was robust, dramatic, exciting and impressive. I noted particularly fine work by the percussion section, especially the tympani and snare drum. But you can listen yourself, and see if it impresses you, as I give you here an excerpt recording of the final two minutes of the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band’s March 6 performance of Holst’s Mars:
A young man attending his first ever live concert at RVSB’s Sorcerers and Hobbits Concert remarked during the intermission that the first piece on the program (Holst’s Mars) reminded him a lot of Star Wars. I’d call that a mission accomplished. Did the clip raise any associations of war and violence for you?
The second piece on the program was the Finale (6th movement) of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Mahler had prepared a program explaining the piece, providing a title for each of the movements. His title for the Final movement was “What Love Tells Me”. Mahler who had declared in a conversation with Sibelius that “A Symphony must be like the world – it must contain everything”, sought to do just that in his Third Symphony, taking us on a musical journey “all the way from Creation to Heaven, in an attempt to imagine the history of an entire ‘universe’ in musical terms.” [Paul Serotsky, Mahler (1860-1911) – Symphony No. 3, MusicWeb International, http://bit.ly/1M67kQl] The Final movement presents the Road to Heaven, “progressively expanding in climactic urgency, a volcanic pressure builds up, released only when [the] first movement ‘structural device’ blows the lid off. . . , clearing the path to those Pearly Gates.” [Ibid.] In his introduction to this piece, Mr. Kocurek confessed that the music of this movement always has a special association for him – the main melody in the middle of the movement is reminiscent of the romantic jazz standard, I’ll Be Seeing You by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, and reminds him of a romantic moment dancing with his wife. Ah, “What love tells me” – the way to heaven! And indeed, once the idea had been planted that the Mahler melody was reminiscent to the romantic jazz standard, a lot of the audience heard that tune in the Mahler piece, and stumbled on a new way of musically conceptualizing the path to Heaven. I should mention that once again, the music was well played by the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band; Mr. Kocurek had led the Band to a crisp, clean, tight, well played performance. The audience responded in kind, with enthusiastic applause. When it died down, Mr. Kocurek announced there would be a short intermission, and then the band would be back to play the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1.
After intermission, the Symphonic Band was back on stage and Mr. Kocurek commenced to provide the audience an introduction to Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, The Lord of the Rings, which he explained was originally written as a symphony for concert band, and only later arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra. “We’re going to play the original,” he announced, “which is better!” De Meij’s Symphony premiered in 1988, long before the popular 21st century movie trilogy. Mr. Kocurek also explained each of the five movements of the piece, which each illustrate one of the characters or episodes from the Tolkien novel. The first movement is a musical depiction of Gandalf the Wizard, who is wise and noble and rides his beautiful gray horse, Shadowfax. The second movement musically presents the story of Lothlórien, depicting the beautiful lush Elvenwood, and also the hobbit Frodo with the lady Galadriel. The third is a musical representation of the malicious and pitiful Gollum (Sméagol), voiced by a soprano saxophone, who is lamenting the loss of, and searching for, his cherished treasure, The Ring, which was stolen from him. The fourth movement presents the Journey in the Dark describing the Fellowship’s endeavor to attempt to destroy The Ring, first the foreboding seeming and sounding journey into The Mines of Moria, and then the dramatic sounding great battle between Gandalf and Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, in which Gandalf falls into the abyss, leaving the rest of the company to struggle to find their way out of the mines to the background of a funeral like dirge. And finally, the fifth movement is a musical presentation of the Hobbits, a folk dance representing the carefree and upbeat Hobbits. But the Symphony does not have an exuberant ending, instead depicting the conclusion of the trilogy, where Gandalf and Frodo sail away in a white ship, slowly disappearing over the horizon.
Suffice it to say that Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, The Lord of the Rings is a complex and difficult piece – if one were going to grade Symphonic Band music in degrees of difficulty, from the easiest (1) to the most difficult (6), The Lord of the Rings would rate a solid (6). It’s a challenging piece. But the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band tamed the beast! Under the direction of Mr. Kocurek they produced an impressive, accomplished, and well done performance of the work. I jotted down a lot of notes as the performance unfolded – great flutes, great trumpets, great piccolo throughout. Special kudos for terrific solos on the second movement (Lothlórien) by Bruce Dresser on trumpet, and Pam Hammond on piccolo. Great march cadence (percussion) and splendid piccolo again in the Moria part of the fourth movement (Journey in the Dark). Then wonderful woodwinds (bassoon, oboe, clarinet, flute) during the post battle funeral dirge. And perhaps best of all, the very difficult, but well done saxophone depiction, performed by Jennifer Knippel, of Gollum in the third movement: wicked and sad sounding.
I’m going to provide readers with two recording excerpts to enable you to judge for yourselves how well the RVSB dispatched this very complex and difficult piece. To give you an encompassing sense of how the entire ensemble performed: cohesive, tight, musical, in tune, and expressive, as de Meij intends and requires, here is a two minute excerpt of the conclusion of the first movement – Gandalf the Wizard:
And just because it was so darn impressive, and a good example of the outstanding and deft solo work performed by so many of the RVSB musicians on this piece, here is a short snippet of Ms. Knippel’s remarkable saxophone depiction of Gollum in the third movement:
At the conclusion of the de Meij piece, the musicians received a rousing standing ovation from the audience. Everyone I heard, or spoke with, was suitably impressed. For his part, Mr. Kocurek wiped his brow and audibly acknowledged “THIS was hard work!” He then genially thanked the audience members for having attended the concert, and invited everyone to come to the next Rogue Valley Symphonic Band concert, Aurora Awakes, on Sunday, May 8, 2016 at the Phoenix High School Auditorium, 745 N. Ross St., Phoenix. The program will consist of Mother Earth (Fanfare) by David Maslanka; October by Eric Whitacre; Sanctuary by Frank Ticheli; Aurora Awakes by John Mackey; O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, arranged by H. Robert Reynolds; and Give Us This Day: Short Symphony for Wind Ensemble by David Maslanka. It certainly looks like another creative, compelling and exciting concert program of challenging works. I, for one, am looking forward to it, and to getting an answer to the same question to Mr. Kocurek and the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band, that I used to raise for Maestro Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony: “Can he keep it up?”