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Pianist Jeffrey Biegel. Photo by Jerry LoFaro

A fresh interpretation of classical repertoire

Rogue Valley Symphony’s January Masterworks series, conducted by artistic director Martin Majkut, is intended as an orchestral and emotional arc. Look for new work by composer Christopher Theofanidis and Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” along with music by Frédéric Chopin and Vaughan Williams.

“Finlandia,” a powerful call to arms, opens the shows, followed by Theofanidis’ Piano Concerto No. 2 and Chopin’s Grand Polonaise Brillante with soloist Jeffrey Biegel at the keyboard.

“Chris’ concerto is a colorful, vibrant piece inspired by the poetry of Rumi, the Persian poet,” Majkut says. “It’s a beautiful, bright, cheerful piece. It bursts with colors. Chris is one of the most popular and played contemporary composers in America, and I’ve wanted to bring more of his work to the Rogue Valley. His compositions are as mystical and unexpected as Rumi’s poetry.”

Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Music Recital Hall, 450 Mountain Ave., at Southern Oregon University, Ashland; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, in the Grants Pass Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St. Majkut will discuss the program one hour before each show. Tickets are $15 to $53 for the Craterian show; $36 to $60 for the SOU show; and $15 to $45 for the Grants Pass show. Tickets are $15 for age 6 through 22 at all shows. All tickets can be purchased at rvsymphony.org or by calling 541-708-6400. Craterian tickets also are available at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

The concerts mark the sixth performance with the symphony for pianist Biegel and the second time the symphony has performed work by Theofanidis. In 2016, Biegel and the symphony performed Theofanidis’ “Dreamtime Ancestors,” also influenced by Rumi’s poetry. Biegel organized the commission of Theofanidis’ piano concerto not only because he loves new music, but because he feels a responsibility to bring new works for piano and orchestra into the 21st century.

Playing new work gives him fresh interpretation of the classical repertoire, he says.

“I like working with living composers,” Biegel says. “If I have questions about interpretation pedaling, sound or feeling, I can ask them. I can’t ask Beethoven, but I can ask Chris.

“This new work is scored for piano, strings, harp and percussion,” he adds. “Throughout the piano part there are string effects, harp effects and percussion effects. It’s not the typical use of the piano, like, for example, Chopin or Rachmaninoff. Chris creates an interesting sonic landscape for the piano that you don’t get in other pieces.”

Theofanidis, born in 1967, is a professor of music composition at Yale University. His work has been performed by orchestras from around the world, including the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony and the Moscow Soloists, among others.

His new concerto is filled with surprises and strange turns of phrase, Theofanidis writes in his program notes.

“That’s one of the great things about Rumi, as philosophical as his work is,” he says. “And even at times slapstick comedy to make his greater points, pairing the seemingly positive and negative.”

Majkut has a knack for pairing classical works and composers. The shows open and close with complementary works: Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and Williams’ Symphony No. 5.

Finnish composer Sibelius wrote his piece in 1899 and revised it in 1900 during a period of Russian aggression. The nine-minute symphonic poem became a national anthem of sorts, an expression of resistant, rebellion and freedom that can be heard in the music.

“The melody has become so popular that people think it’s a folk song, that it’s been in existence forever. The song has actually made it into hymnals not just in Finland, but around the world.” Majkut says. “Then we’re doing the symphony by Williams, a lyrical piece that he wrote during the second World War and dedicated to Sibelius.”

British composer Williams’ lyrical piece premiered in London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 1943. The symphony, in the aftermath of The Blitz, Germany’s nighttime bombing raids of 1940 and 1941, must have been a magical, calming experience for audiences. The strings suggest the gentle movement of air and water, the flutes bring in light and unclouded optimism, and the brass gives strong and solid structure to the work.

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

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