Masterworks 5 delivers on its promise

Martin Majkut, conductor of the Rogue Valley Symphony, promised a spectacular evening of music at last weekend’s Masterworks 5, and it was.

There was a narrative to the evening’s three sets that progressed from a brilliant opening, a thoughtful and moody interlude and finally to a work that framed a lifetime. Majkut was deliberate in his construction of this narrative arc, thinking of the commissioned work by Jonathan Leshnoff and the music of Manuel de Falla and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“I knew what kind of composition style Jonathan writes in, so I had an intuition of how to pair it well,” Majkut says. “And I wanted a piece that would be contrasting to those two bombastic or more energetic pieces, something dreamy and evocative, and that’s why I settled on Falla.”

Although the mood of the three pieces was very different, the form was similar in the broad sense, a series of dances that ranged from the ecstatic to the waltz.

The world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s "Rogue Sparks" was a beautiful and exciting piece that engaged every instrument of the orchestra. Just five minutes in length, the music conjured color, sparks and flames of fire brilliant against the night sky. Strings bantered with brass and percussion, seamlessly playing against each other.

Internationally acclaimed, Leshnoff is one of America’s most productive and performed composers. "Rogue Sparks" was one of five premiere performances in the 2017-2018 season, commissioned on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Rogue Valley Symphony. While Leshnoff was not in Oregon for the premiere, Majkut sent recordings of rehearsals to the composer that evoked ecstatic reviews.

The interlude of the evening was a dazzling performance of Manuel de Falla’s "Nights in the Garden of Spain" by Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriella Martinez and the Rogue Valley Symphony.

"Nights in the Garden of Spain" is a series of smaller pieces, almost picaresque, that form a whole. The three parts are both Spanish and Islamic, at times romantic and breathtakingly beautiful, and at others a wild synthesis of exuberant dance. One hears and sees the passion and smooth melodic notes of Spanish tradition in the performance, bringing the exotic incense of fabulous gardens into the music hall, forming impressions of birds high against the skies of Andalucía, the symphony’s instruments alive, music dancing in the forceful rhythms of Cordoba.

It was impressive to watch Martinez, her hands swift and sure on the keys and her presence, so elegant on stage. Martinez’ performance brought the audience into the complex, cultural range of southern Spain, the piano not the dominant instrument, but offering a responsive resonance. She heard the orchestra not only with her ears, but also sensed it with her body, leaning into the music with total absorption. In the preface to the evening, Martinez described the close relationships in the scoring that created a work almost chamber-like, the piano at times responding to the flutes and piccolos, at times leading the strings and always playing to weave the sounds into a whole.

The Rogue Valley Symphony’s final performance of the evening was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Considered to be the composer’s greatest work, Symphonic Dances was completed in 1940, his final composition three years before his death.

Symphonic Dances, like Leshnoff’s "Rogue Sparks," is a large orchestral work that is a composer’s indulgence, allowing a great range and depth. “The palette of colors Rachmaninoff had at his disposal offered infinite possibilities,” notes Majkut, “and he used it in a virtuosic fashion.”

With three works as part of the whole, Symphonic Dances textures notes and scores from a lifetime of work into the composition. It is an expression of a life well lived, with experiences that terrify and excite and an optimism that brings hope and joy.

A saxophone solo in the first movement is remarkable and unique, and Angel McDonald’s rendition is exquisite. The solo is a nod to the contemporary atonal compositions that were in vogue at the time, but expressed within a classical framework.

Last weekend was the reveal of the Rogue Valley Symphony’s 2018 season, when season ticket holders picked up their programs and bantered for better seats, though there are no bad seats in Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall. Two commissioned works, by Theofaniudis and Jandali, will be premiered and Southern Oregon will host celebrated musicians including Livia Sohn on violin, Peter Serkin, Jeffrey Biegel, Lise de la Salle and Alexander Tutunov on piano and Roberto Diaz on viola. The 2018 Masterworks series will be outstanding. 

Rogue Valley Symphony tickets are available as a season’s subscription and also for individual performances usually held in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass. Individual tickets may be purchased online at RVSymphony.org.

— Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

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