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The Rogue Valley Symphony: Behind The Scenes

Violin cases and coats lay scattered on dozens of empty seats in the recital hall at Southern Oregon University.  Under the bright stage lights, dozens of musicians laugh and greet friends they haven't seen in months. 

The first rehearsal of the Rogue Valley Symphony's 2013-2014 season is about to begin.

Conductor Martin Majkut (pronounced my-koot) calls the orchestra to order by introducing new members and complimenting old members who have moved into new roles.  Using a time-honored tradition, the musicians shuffle their feet to congratulate these new and newly-promoted colleagues.

After a few short administrative announcements, Majkut picks up his baton.  All side conversations cease and the orchestra members assume concert positions. The dress is casual tonight—jeans and t-shirts for some—but the focus is palpable.

The baton rises, and the open measures of Brahms's third Symphony reverberate through the nearly empty auditorium.  The fabric of tonight's sound is woven together seamlessly, a surprise for a first rehearsal.  This is accomplished, in part, through the creative use of technology not available to ensembles in centuries past.

"Martin sends us links to Youtube performances that he thinks are good enough performances that would be worth listening to," says Ken Kigel, a violinist who has performed with the Rogue Valley Symphony (RVS) since 1977.

Kigel also finds that communication among players is faster now than it was when he joined.  "Technology has definitely changed the life of the orchestra," Kigel explains. "All the communication is through email." 

Majkut emails performance notes on each piece well in advance of the first rehearsal, with directions on changes in tempo and dynamics for specific points in each piece.  Follow-up instructions are often emailed between performances. The net result of this email communication is that the orchestra arrives at the first few rehearsals better prepared than it was in times past.

The music stops after only 20 seconds and Majkut describes a specific accent he's looking for from the horns.  The passage is repeated and the improvement for all instruments is noticeable.  The second time, the music stops after a minute at measure 26 and he asks for a similar change from the woodwinds.  Three uninterrupted minutes of playing follow.  After each stop, Majkut includes words of encouragement as he requests minor changes. 

"He knows how to pull the best performance out of people. Musicians are sensitive, you need to know when to push people and when to back off, he walks that line really well," says Theresa McCoy, the principal timpanist.  "He keeps rehearsals moving, they're light—with humor—and yet focused and professional.  So he gets really good performances out of people."

Majkut also makes use of his prodigious memory.  "He conducts from memory.  That's not only rare, it's like prodigy level," says viola player Morgan O'Shaughnessey. "He's one of the main reasons I'm sticking around."

After ten minutes, the orchestra is completely warmed up and sounds unified. Majkut stops the first movement a few more times, to remind the players of a pivot in dynamics that seems to hold the key to his interpretation of this opening Allegro Con Brio movement of the Brahms piece: subito piano - suddenly soft.

Now in his fourth season as conductor, the 38 year-old Majkut projects the classic image of a conductor.  Tall, handsome, and a snappy dresser, he speaks with a boyish effervescence, both onstage and off.

A native of Bratislava, Slovakia, Majkut was hired as conductor of the RVS orchestra in 2010, one of 160 candidates.  He holds two doctorates in music and has conducted on both sides of the Atlantic. His position before arriving in Oregon was as Resident Conductor for the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra.  He has conducted many symphony orchestras in Slovakia, and continues to guest conduct there once or twice each year. This past summer he was a guest conductor in Bulgaria.

With a bi-continental résumé, he can't help but notice differences in the way classical music is perceived in the United States and Europe.

"In Europe, politicians often show up, all kinds of powerful people in the community want to be perceived as being cultural so they go to these concerts.  It's also much more formalized than here," Majkut explains. "The whole experience is a little more old-fashioned, everyone really dresses up nicely, that's still the case, but it's also more rigid.  I find that the American audiences are a lot more spontaneous, more genuine in expressing their feelings. They just don't sit there in awe.  It doesn't feel like church here.  The whole experienced is more fun, more relaxed. I actually like that, I embrace it."

Like most conductors, Majkut began his musical career as a performer.

"I started as a pianist, I was not quite six, and then when I went to the conservatory, I studied conducting and piano there," Majkut recalls. "Slowly, over time, conducting became the number one thing." 

For many children in Iron Curtain-era Czechoslovakia, music served as a dream, an escape. "Classical music or being a musician was immensely attractive for my generation who grew up in the communist system, because it gave you an opportunity to go abroad," Majkut says. "Not many people went to Western countries because you couldn't get permission.  So as a musician you could travel, you could get paid in western money as well, which was a big deal, so it would significantly improve your living situation—even when the State took most of it."

As a conductor in 2013, Majkut articulates his vision in terms of a broad reach.

"My goal is that everyone in this community here—Rogue Valley—knows about Rogue Valley Symphony," he explains. "Institutions like a symphony orchestra in order to remain relevant, they have to do good for the public, there has to be a consensus in the community that we're enriching it."

As he reaches out to the community, part of his strategy calls for walking a tightrope.

"I want people to not only hear the top 100 works all the time, I want them to always find something in a concert that they already know and enjoy or at least recognize the composer, at the same time, I want them to think, offer them something more challenging."  In his first season, he stuck to crowd pleasers, but since that time, he's worked contemporary pieces into the mix.  This season, for instance, concertgoers will hear Argentinean composers Pablo Furman and Astor Piazzolla, showing that classical music is in fact created south of the equator.

Philosophically, says Majkut, music has a dual role. "Classical music has many wonderful things to teach us, many profound thoughts in that music, but at the same time it must be first and foremost simply enjoyable," he adds.

He designs each five-concert season as a dramatic and musical arc.

"There's an ebb and flow, you start big, then usually the second concert the music is a little more intimate, then usually I save the biggest and most demanding piece for (the third concert in) January because it seems like we're mid season, we're warmed up, we're a tight ensemble, then again you don't to too many bombastic pieces." 

The fourth concert, he says, "is less flashy, more probing.  It's more classic, classical.  The final concert is all fun. It leaves people with something lighter."  In this case, lighter means an all-contemporary billing, including Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and the Cowboy Overture by John Williams of Boston Pops fame.

Notable in this season's lineup are larger symphonic works absent until recently.  The size of the orchestra simply wasn't big enough.  One of Majkut's big changes in his short tenure in the Rogue Valley has been to grow the orchestra from about 60 to 80 performers, and much of the growth has been in the strings section.

"The Mahler symphony (No. 4) needs a big orchestra, I wouldn't be attempting it without the beefier string section," says Majkut.  "Our first concert this season is the first time we have six bass players.  Brahms also needs a strong foundation.  It's now a big symphony playground."

With such a large string section, the role of Concertmaster becomes even more important.  In addition to playing violin solos and coaching his fellow string players, longtime Concertmaster Scott Cole is tasked with figuring out the nuts and bolts—or strings and bows—of realizing conductor Majkut's vision with dozens of violin, viola, cello, and bass players.  The symphony performs its Masterworks Series in three venues: S.O.U. recital hall in Ashland, Ginger Rogers Craterian Theater in Medford, and the Grants Pass Center for the Performing Arts.  Stage space for the new, larger orchestra at the Ashland hall is limited, so synchronizing the movements of the musicians is essential.

"Several hundred years ago, I think it was in France, someone came up with this novel idea that everyone's bows should move in the same direction," Cole explains. "They started coordinating which ways the bows went, either up and down."

So instead of a potential mélée of flying elbows colliding with chins on a passionate forte and staccato eighth note, Cole insures that the arms of dozens of violin players produce a harmony that is not only auditory, but visual as well.

Each instrument has its own leader—the principal—who has duties that go beyond playing solos.  The principals all listen to the other sections. "Sometimes I'll hear something where we're not matching styles with each other or maybe we're not lining up the rhythm, not in balance, or even not in tune with each other," says Jennifer Carstensen, principal horn player.  "I try to improve our section in rehearsals by saying 'let's do this style differently here or maybe we could bring that out a little more, it's not coming through the texture, or maybe that's too loud'… I also take questions from my section and bring them to Martin."

But as a member of the wind instrument section, Carstensen faces a different challenge than the string players: a workout not only for the shoulders and hands, but also for lungs and lips.  "Endurance is the biggest question for me, it's related to the fact that we play three performances in a weekend and a dress rehearsal on the Thursday night," Carstensen explains.  "In the past concert (September), we played three big pieces, each with horn solos in them.  For me, endurance meant being at my best for each solo."

Leading up to each solo, Carstensen would have her assistant principal horn take over while she rested.   This was necessary, she says "so I could rest my lips… Sometimes the solo comes in after I've already been playing for 40 measures."

The quality, as well as the quantity, of musicians has changed significantly since the late Fred Palmer conducted the first RVS performance in 1967.  Today many orchestra members are conservatory trained and several have big city orchestra experience.  In a short memoir on the founding of the RVS, Palmer—then an assistant music professor at Southern Oregon College—wrote that in that first year,

"…the single cello player was a college freshman newly off a Klamath County sheep ranch.  The only bass player was a self-taught chemistry professor who had been trying to play for less than a year."


From that first performance—Franz Schubert's Rosamunde's Overture—held in Medford's Mid-High School auditorium, the RVS has grown from a tiny organization made up primarily of volunteers, to a professional organization with an annual budget of nearly $600,000.

For decades, the RVSO was a true community orchestra, of, by, and for the community. 

"The quality of musicians has improved," says 35-year orchestra member, Ken Kigel. "It was a fine community orchestra.  Now the kind of music has changed.  We've taken on more sophisticated, bigger works."

This metamorphosis began under the leadership of former conductor Arthur Shaw, and has continued with Majkut.

"We've gone from being a community orchestra to a professional regional orchestra," says Cybele Abbett, RVS's Executive Director, who herself holds a degree in music. "The comment I hear most from our long-term patrons is 'it keeps getting better and better.'"

The concert-going public has responded with their wallets as well as with words.  The five concert Masterworks Series has long been the mainstay of the RVS.  In the last season, all five performances in Ashland sold out.  The Medford concerts nearly sold out.  In Grants Pass attendance was up significantly.

"We were running into this problem of embarrassment of riches," Majkut explains. "We had so much response from the community, so we were weighing on options about how we could offer even more music to the community… so we settled on a (summer) series of chamber music in a beautiful outdoor setting, at Voorhees Mansion in cooperation with Edenvale Winery.  The programs are more adventurous than what I do with the (full) Symphony.”

Two of the three concerts in the new summer series this year sold out more than a month in advance.  More growth is planned.  "We're going to expand the summer series," says Abbett. "It's in our strategic plan to hold performances in every month of the year."

Part of the expansion involves taking music to future concert-goers.

In the symphony orchestra business, it well known that the majority of concert-goers were first exposed to classical music as children, whether merely listening with their parents or taking music lessons.  To invest in the future, Abbett says, the RVS annually serves more than 10,000 students in Jackson, Josephine, and Klamath counties in Oregon and in Siskiyou County, California.  It's a mission that becomes ever-more important when music programs are easy targets for budget-cutting in a public school system forced to spend its resources maximizing test scores.

"There is no music at the elementary level in the Talent-Phoenix School District," says Majkut.  "So we send in our musicians… they will teach them not just about music, but they will actually learn to read music, they will learn to sing, next year they will learn to play the recorders, at the end of the year, we'll have them join the Symphony on stage, all these kids playing with the Symphony."  This program, "Carnegie Hall: Linkup," is a year-long curriculum that focuses on how melodies work, and is produced by New York's Carnegie Hall.

The RVS has three other programs to bring music to children.  "Chamber Players," is a string quintet of orchestra members that performs in the schools and provides basic music appreciation.  In "Classical Coaches," orchestra members assist school music teachers in band and orchestra classes.  The final program, "Connecting with the Classics," is a voucher system, allowing both a student and an accompanying parent/grandparent to attend the symphony for free.

For some orchestra members, these new programs provide additional opportunities to realize a goal of music as a full-time paying career.

"It's fair to say that most musicians in most parts of the country are in the same boat, that there are very few full-time orchestra jobs or teaching jobs," says Concertmaster Scott Cole. "(Several of us) have private students, and I'm a member of the Cascade Strings, a group that plays a lot of weddings and parties… a large group of us plays in the Rogue Opera."  Cole is also part of the RVS-sponsored Chamber Players string quartet that plays in local schools. He occasionally plays with the California North State Symphony.  Cole moved to the Rogue Valley in 1995 to play violin for the Britt Classical Orchestra, a position he still enjoys.

Principal timpanist Theresa McCoy also plays percussion in local jazz and conga bands to keep her wrists supple, but relies on a full-time day job as an IT manager for a Medford accounting firm.  Viola player Morgan O'Shaughnessey evaluates stringed instruments at the musical repair and consignment store, Bellwood Violins, in Ashland.  Principal horn layer Jenifer Carstensen teaches music at Ashland Middle School.

In such a small community, it's not surprising that the paths of these musicians cross frequently, both professionally and socially.

"I, as a newcomer, was really well welcomed," says 24 year-old Morgan O'Shaughnessey, who landed his RVSO job straight out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He thought he'd give the area one year.  He's now in his third year.  "There are many strong friendships in the Symphony. I play with a number of chamber music groups that have been going for 15 years. People just get together on a Friday morning and play music together… generally there's some sort of party at a restaurant after the concert in Medford or here in Ashland, everybody carpools together. When you're spending this much time with people, most people in the orchestra understand that you have to dedicate time and resources to maintaining good friendships because you have to work together."

Onstage, that camaraderie pays off.

"The second performance of Tchaikovsky's sixth Symphony last year we got a moment of togetherness where I didn't see how I could keep going," O'Shaghnessey recalls. "It was wonderful as a musician, reaching complete emotional exhaustion because you gave this effort."

It's a moment the audience appreciates as well.

Nine days after they first gathered to prepare for the 2013/14 season, the orchestra performs their dress rehearsal.  The first movement of the Brahms symphony is played through without a break.  When the baton rises on Dvorak's Piano Concerto, the soloist is playing with this orchestra for the first time.  In previous rehearsals, Majkut filled in for the soloist by humming and da-de-dum-ing his way through her part to simulate the timing, but with the real McCoy, the orchestra plays in sync flawlessly.  In not much more than a week since their first rehearsal, the orchestra is concert ready.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley.  Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.