Martin Majkut became one of the youngest assistant conductors of a major European orchestra in 2000 at age 25, when he was appointed to the Slovak Philharmonic in his native Bratislava, Slovakia. These days he divides his time between his native land, where he's been conductor of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Arizona, where he's assistant conductor of the Arizona Opera.
He is the second candidate for the job of conductor and music director of the Rogue Valley Symphony in what the RVSO is calling The Year of the Search, stretching through the autumn-to-spring concert season. Each candidate leads the orchestra in a three-day series of concerts around the valley presenting music of the RVSO's choosing.
"We're trying to find if our visions for the orchestra align," says Majkut (pronounced maj-coot). "You have to find what your strengths are. I found an orchestra here with a great potential. I am impressed by their ability to grasp what I'm after as a conductor."
Majkut and the orchestra have been rehearsing for this weekend's concert program, with Majkut calls "a hard program" and very challenging.
"You have to jump from Mozart to Villa-Lobos," he says. "It's a very different musical syntax."
Majkut grew up near Vienna surrounded by classical music, which he says is more common in Europe than in the United States.
"There is a very vibrant scene," he says. "Under Communism I couldn't travel. But all the big composers stopped here on the way from Vienna to Prague. There are three orchestras in a city of 500,000.
"The opera performs every night. I was shocked when I came to Tucson and had to wait a month for the next opera."
Majkut traveled to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 2003 and enrolled in the orchestral studies program at the University of Arizona School of Music. He earned a doctoral degree in musical arts from the University of Arizona to go with the doctorate he already held in conducting from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Bratislava. He has performed with the Arizona Symphonic Orchestra and all the major orchestras in Slovakia.
He says he's impressed by the esteem for the arts he sees in Ashland, and by the beauty of Southern Oregon.
"It very much looks like home," he says.
He says the concert program requires a lot of flexibility from the orchestra.
"The Mozart is very Italianate, like all his early symphonies," he says. "It's very lively, with lots of melodic invention."
He says the Villa-Lobos "Fantasia" is simply great music.
"It always sounds good," he says. "Often a composer's ideas look good on paper, but it's not full and rounded, it doesn't vibrate.
"In the 'Fantasia,' with the horns playing in close harmony, the horns and saxophone create a nice sonority, something specifically American."
There is not a lot of music for the saxophone, which dates back only a century or so.
He describes Lorenz's "Pataruco" as a smartly written piece.
"It's challenging," he says. "He plays with rhythm a lot. It's really fun."He promises a surprise toward the end of the piece in concert. He's not saying what it is, but he says people will know it when they hear it.
The Beethoven symphony is the most familiar music on the program, but Majkut says he plans to shake people's notions of it a bit. After studying its history, he concluded that people often see through the prism of the influence of later composers such as Brahms and Wagner.
"If you do that you don't get the right results," he says. "It's rocking, one of his most rocking pieces."
Majkut both agrees and disagrees that classical music is in serious trouble with widespread budget crises and an aging audience.
"There's this notion of doom," he says, "but it's been around since 1910."
He says statistics actually paint a mixed picture, and there are hopeful signs as well as harbingers of doom.
"We have to reach young audiences outside traditional channels," he says. "We need to speak their language with streaming music and multi-media events, not look down at them from on high."
One of his doctoral dissertations was on music education, and he does a lot of educational outreach with the opera, talking with thousands of students each year, he notes.
"You have to be honest," he says. "It sounds simple. They are young adults. Don't lecture. Present music as it is and say this is our passion, they're welcome to join us or not.
"They appreciate it. They come. It's a process that never ends.
"I enjoy doing it."