Conductor Martin Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony celebrate its 50th anniversary with the premiere of a newly commissioned overture. [Mail Tribune / File photo]

Masterworks 5 premieres newly commissioned 'Rogue Sparks'

Look for a panoply of aural color when artistic director Martin Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony present Masterworks 5 this weekend.

Now in its 50th year, RVS celebrates with a premiere of its newly commissioned overture written by emerging composer Jonathan Leshnoff, along with a performance of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" accompanied by Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez, and Sergei Rachmaninoff's fiery Symphonic Dances.

Concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., at Southern Oregon University in Ashland; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, in the Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St., Grants Pass.

Tickets are $41 to $60 for the Ashland show; $20 to $53 for the Medford show; and $20 to $48 for the Grants Pass show. Tickets are $15 for ages 6 through 22. Tickets can be purchased at rvsymphony.org or by calling 541-708-6400. Tickets for the Medford show also can be purchased at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

A larger, expanded orchestra required by the Rachmaninoff suite was key in convincing Leshnoff to accept RVS' commission, Majkut says.

“I told him he could write for as large an orchestra as he wanted,” the conductor says. "It’s a sparkly, colorful, driving tour de force of perpetual motion. Very celebratory in tone for our 50th anniversary."

The Washington Post called Leshnoff one of the “gifted young composers” of his generation. His compositions receive international acclaim for their striking harmonies, structural complexity and powerful themes.

"His music is smart and accessible," Majkut says. "I think this piece will be successful because of that. He also knows how to write well for an orchestra. At the same time we are premiering 'Rogue Sparks,' the Dallas Symphony is premiering his new violin concerto. It's the last concert with their music director Jaap Van Zweden before he moves to the New York Philharmonic."

Majkut and RVS can't be too specific when commissioning a new piece from a composer.

"All we specify is the length and the instrumentation," Majkut says. "I research a composer's style but don't designate what kind of music to write. We asked for something for our 50th anniversay. It's up to the composer to come up with a creative solution. Leshnoff liked the word 'Rogue.' It's just so evocative. There's so many ways to interpret it. I think that's what inspired him."

Another highlight of the program comes when Martinez lends her ability to Falla's picturesque work for piano and symphony.

“It’s a colorful piece of great subtlety which needs an accomplished pianist to bring it alive," Majkut says. "Gabriela is an incredible talent."

Martinez made her orchestral debut at age 7. She has a reputation for her compelling interpretations and the lyricism in her playing.

The program will close with Rachmaninoff's suite in three movements. Completed in 1940, The Symphonic Dances is his last work.

Majkut describes it as “demonic with a playful streak.”

The work represents Rachmaninoff's later style with its shifting harmonies and focus on instrumental tonal colors throughout. It's punctuated by alto sax in the opening dance.

“The first movement is relentlessly rhythmic driven,” Majkut says. “The second is a waltz — dreamy, but also with a dark undercurrent. The finale quotes from both the 'Dies Irae' ('Days of Wrath') and an 'alleluia.'”

Dances combines energetic rhythmic sections, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with some of Rachmaninoff’s lushest harmonies.

Majkut is in his eighth season with RVS. When he arrived, it was his goal to make it best orchestra of its size in the United States. He’s very happy with the progress.

“This year has put us on the map,” he says.

Majkut was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. He says his first encounter with music was at an early age when his parents took him to a concert by Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

“I started taking piano lessons at the age of 5, and began studying conducting and piano in a conservatory at age 13.”

When he was at university, he was given the opportunity to conduct a professional orchestra for the first time.

“It was a make-or-break situation,” he says. "A combination of having a clear mental image of the music and being able to work well with many talented musicians is what makes a good conductor. It's more about motivating than teaching."

— Jim Flint is a retired editor and publisher living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

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