Music director and conductor Martin Majkut leads the Rogue Valley Symphony. [Photo by Christopher Briscoe]

Rogue Valley Symphony raises the bar

Conductor Martin Majkut wants to kick off the Rogue Valley Symphony's 50th season with a concert that is ambitious, if not daring.

"This program will include a great soloist and a massive symphony," he says. "It's a reflection of how much confidence I have in the organization."

American pianist Peter Serkin will join the orchestra to perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, and the orchestra will present Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St.

Tickets are $41 to $60 for the Ashland concert; $20 to $53 for the Medford concert; and $20 to $48 for the Grants Pass concert. Tickets are $15 for age 6 through 22 at all shows. Tickets can be purchased at rvsymphony.org or by calling 54-708-6400. Tickets to the Medford concert also can be purchased at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

Majkut will present pre-concert talks one hour before each performance.

"The piano concerto is probably the most popular by Mozart," Majkut says. "It's a very personal piece. Mozart strove to be objective in his work, but this is one that feels emotional. I feel that such a piece needs a strong soloist who can project his own personality onto the work and bring out its emotional points."

Majkut has yet to meet the famous Serkin.

"Peter may be one of the biggest celebrities of our world we've ever had here," he says. "I've read books by famous conductors who describe how they work with him. It's going to be exciting to engage with him."

Serkin's father was Rudolf Serkin, Majkut says, one of the great pianists of his generation. He was born in 1903 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and immigrated in 1939 to the U.S. His son, Peter, was born 1947 in New York City.

"Peter began as a somewhat 'enfant terrible' in the classical world,' Majkut says. "Which means terrifying child. Instead of going the usual route and playing all the great works of the repertoire, he played cutting edge, modern, kind of out there stuff. He chose to ignore the conanical works and play everything else. It was his way of rebelling against his father."

Serkin decided to stop playing music in 1968, and he took his wife and baby daughter to live in rural Mexico. Then one morning he heard Johann Sebastian Bach being broadcast on a radio, and he returned to the U.S. to begin again.

Majkut has studied Mahler's fifth symphony for many years, but resisted the temptation to present it for some time, he says.

“I have so much respect for these gargantuan symphonies of Mahler," he says. "I wanted to to wait until I had the right constellation of stars. This is the moment.”

Mahler's symphony is so huge, the orchestra could fill an entire concert with it, Majkut says.

"it's one of those overwhelming statements, an hour and 10 minutes. It may be the greatest challenge I've ever thrown at the orchestra. It's my hope that because of the smoke everyone is staying inside and practicing," he chuckles.

Mahler's piece contains five movements and follows a trajectory from dark to light, Majkut says. It begins with a funeral march and ends with a life-affirming rondo. The fourth movement, the Adagietto, is Mahler's most well-known work. It's been used in many movies, most famously in "Death in Venice."

When cinema integrates perfectly with a piece of music, the soundtrack becomes linked in memory, and the music becomes more popular through its association with the movie than in its original context. Think of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in "Brief Encounter" or Dukas's "The Sorceror's Apprentice" in Disney's "Fantasia," according to Classic FM.

Likewise the enduring popularity of Mahler's Adagietto owes much to film director Luchino Visconti's 1971 "Death in Venice." Searching for music that would echo mortality and true love on screen, Visconti not only used Mahler's music, but also took the liberty of turning novelist Thomas Mann's main character, Gustav Von Aschenbach, from a writer to a composer.

Visconti uses the Adagietto to bookend the film. It sets the melancholic mood as Aschenbach's ship steams into Venice at the opening, and returns as the composer dies in the rain.

Majkut is no stranger to ambition. In August, he was named music director for the Queens Symphony Orchestra.

"It was a long, involved process before we got to this point," he says. "I conducted a bunch of concerts with them before I became their music director. I've been to New York four times this summer."

As music director of Rogue Valley Symphony and Queens Symphony Orchestra, he's got enough to keep him "plenty busy," he says. Though he may do some guest conducting on the side.

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