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  • Symphony stirs Christmas spirit

  • REVIEW — Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra Conductor Martin Majkut looked out at more than a few empty seats in Ashland's First United Methodist Church Thursday night.
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  • Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra Conductor Martin Majkut looked out at more than a few empty seats in Ashland's First United Methodist Church Thursday night.
    "Welcome, you brave souls," he said. "Believe it or not, this is a sold-out concert."
    The problem was not only the ice that still covered some streets nearly a week after the season's first snowfall, but the freezing rain that had been forecast for the very evening hours during which the concert would take place.
    The freezing rain didn't happen. The concert did, after being postponed the previous weekend because of the weather. It came complete with candles lighting the way into the church, yule decorations inside and the audience joining in to sing some familiar Christmas songs.
    The centerpiece of a varied program was a spirited performance of Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto by RVS's Gwen Hutchings.
    With a varying lineup of 16 or 18 musicians, virtually all of them strings, the show had the feel of a chamber concert rather than a symphonic event. Instead of being separate from a huge orchestra on a stage, the audience felt more like friends gathered for intimate music.
    The program opened with a couple of arrangements by the American composer Leroy Anderson, who is best remembered for his work with the Boston Pops.
    Throughout the program, Majkut paired carols well-known in America with other works.
    The traditional Spanish carol "Pastores a Belen" was light and jaunty and set the tone for a lovely version of Edmund Sears' and Richard Willis' 19th-century carol "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." The familiar "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was paired with the slight and charming "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella," a carol from 16th century France celebrating the nativity.
    "Away in a Manger" came with "Wassail Song," both English songs done in Anderson arrangements.
    For more substantive works, Majkut turned to Mozart, Handel and Copland. Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, a rather somber work with echoes of the Baroque, was composed for a string quintet, and the playing of additional musicians seemed only to intensify a distinct sense of darkness.
    Like Mozart's composition, the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, No. 12, was written for a smaller orchestra. The score includes a part for harpsichord, which Majkut played with relish while directing the orchestra.
    But the linchpin of the evening was the Copland concerto, a complex composition that often sounded less "classical" than jazzy, especially in its middle passages. That's understandable. It was written for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.
    The "bittersweet lyricism" (Copland's description) of the slow first movement gave way to increasingly frenetic passages that led to a cadenza filled with jazzy motifs that Hutchings rendered with a supple warmth of tone.
    The piece goes on to incorporate Latin American jazz themes, often with an urban touch. It famously contains a phrase from a Brazilian pop tune of the day that the famed composer had heard in Rio de Janeiro. But unless you know what you're listening for, it will probably slip by as just another component in this rich mix of sound.
    Hutchings, an Idaho native who has performed all over the world, in 2011 settled in the valley, where both she and her husband play in several symphonic and concert bands.
    The evening wound up with the audience joining the orchestra in a sing-along of familiar Christmas tunes.
    The program will be presented again at 7:30 tonight at First Presbyterian Church in Medford (sold out) and at 4 p.m. Sunday at Newman United Methodist Church in Grants Pass. Visit rvsymphony.org.
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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