Review: Majkut takes command in stirring symphony opening

And then there was one. Martin Majkut, who emerged from a five-director competition over the past year to take the artistic helm of the Rogue Valley Symphony, delivered the first Medford show of his watch to a full Craterian audience Saturday night, winning over both audience and musicians.

Majkut created the evening's program, his first with the RVS, by mixing the exotic, the familiar and something in between. The exotic was Vitêszlav Novak's "In the Tatras," the familiar was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and the in-between was Gershwin's Piano Concerto. The program will be repeated today at the Performing Arts Center in Grants Pass.

The orchestra seems to have grown a bit since last season, with an additional cello and double bass and more violas, eight now, for a total of about 70 players on the stage. For "In the Tatras," there appeared to be additional wind players as well.

Vitêszlav Novák (1870-1949) was a late romantic, a student of Dvorak, and the harmonies of this tone poem were as lush and passionate as you could want. The thing stretched beyond normal bounds as the music described a storm in these Eastern European mountains. The first tune emerged from the silence with a hint of mysticism, grew rambunctious in a dramatic middle part, then dissipated into an almost sublime sense of peace.

There was darkness — as you'd expect in a storm in the mountains — but the overall feeling was positive and expansive. The little-known piece is evidently technically demanding, but the orchestra rose to the challenge.

If you see "Tatras" as a postcard to the audience from Majkut's homeland, Gershwin's Piano Concerto is a postcard in the other direction, one exploring something near the heart of Americana.

It's not heard as much as its iconic cousin, the "Rhapsody in Blue," which is understandable considering the former's indelible score and innate drama. But the concerto too has the power to evoke the rousing energy of New York City in the 1920s.

In the fast first movement, guest artist Alexander Tutenov introduced a theme soon taken up by the strings, and you could quickly feel nervous streets jammed with crawling black cars and the sidewalks jammed with busy people in hats and coats.

The middle section zoomed in for a close-up, perhaps an evening on the town. A nightclub. Bootleg gin. Women in evening dresses. A muted trumpet mined a bluesy vein, maybe a tale of love gone wrong.

In the third movement the mental camera pulled back again, and it was morning, a morning-after maybe, and the urban rhythms were even wilder as the thing rushed to a mad climax and the crowd leaped to a standing ovation.

Tutenov came back for an encore, a deeply felt take on Franz Liszt's "Liebesträume," followed by a striding rag.

What can you say about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony? It presents us with perhaps the most familiar sequence of notes ever heard, melds two movements together, brings back its beginnings in the end and unifies a titanic work around one motif.

Majkut seems to find the so-called "fate motif" resonating in almost every measure of the piece. The orchestra introduced it by playing the two four-note figures quite rapidly. The opening sonata introduced and expanded the familiar theme, added the second theme and ended in the big coda, stormier in its unique way even than the Novak.

The lyrical andante was carried early by the violas and cellos with help from double basses. After the second theme was played by clarinets and bassoons, the first returned, followed by a third. The big crescendos were thunderous.

In the scherzo the mood turned dark again, and fate motif returned. There was the amazing transition, the recapitulation, the return of the dance, the long coda with its quick reiterations of the main themes, the hammer blows of those C major chords for measure after measure. Out of all that tension came resolution, out of chaos, joy.

Majkut appears to relish his new job, and the orchestra is there for him. One eagerly awaits the unfolding of the new season.

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