Arthur Shaw will take the baton as conductor of the Rogue Valley Symphony for the last time Sunday afternoon at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford. The program will include a surprise mystery piece that will last about 10 minutes.

Arthur Shaw will take the baton as conductor of the Rogue Valley Symphony for the last time Sunday afternoon at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford. The program will include a surprise mystery piece that will last about 10 minutes.

"It's my farewell gesture," he says. "It will make sense when people hear it."

Shaw has been the conductor and music director of the classical orchestra based at Ashland's Southern Oregon University since 1987. He says he'll remember his time in the Rogue Valley for musical improvement in the orchestra. Observers say he will be remembered for his professional skills.

"People think the director is just up there waving a stick around and he doesn't matter," says flutist Debra Harris, who has played in the orchestra for 20 years and also is the box office manager.

"It's not true. We rely on his accurate technique. He always has one of the major works memorized, in every concert we've ever done. We could always rely on him."

Shaw and the orchestra will perform "Carmina Burana" tonight and Sunday with the Rogue Valley Chorale. Both performances are sold out.

Originally from Arizona, Shaw came to the symphony from the Adrian Symphony Orchestra in Adrian, Mich., where he also was teaching music at Wayne State University in Detroit. He and his wife had just started a family, and between two jobs he felt he never saw them.

For the last eight years it's been deja vu all over again as he commuted to the Rogue Valley for five subscription concert series a year plus annual holiday candlelight concerts from Bellevue, Wash., where his wife, Nancie, found a job teaching high school music after her job at Ashland High School was eliminated in a budget cut.

Shaw says the couple's grown children are nearly through college, and it's time to slow down. He wants to focus on teaching. He has some advanced conducting students and finds he's challenged and stimulated by the work.

"I've learned I have something to offer in that field," he says. "I wish somebody had shown me the things I know now when I was that age."

Shaw says growth in the quality of the orchestra has been slow but steady to the point where it could take on challenging pieces that would be beyond the reach of many small-town orchestras, such as Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

"I don't think it's a cultured community unless you have your own orchestra," he says.

Violinist and associate concertmaster Larry Stubson, of Medford, who's been with the Rogue Valley Symphony since 1977, says the orchestra has improved greatly during Shaw's tenure.

"He made it play above what I thought it could play," Stubson says. "We've played works you'd think nobody should touch except a professional orchestra.

"At first I thought he was crazy, but he always knew what he was doing."

Principal percussionist Hal Davis agrees.

"I've witnessed amazing growth," he says. "Art has a real gift for challenging the musicians just enough, not to the breaking point. He's not in your face. He brings out the best."

Stubson says Shaw has a collegial style.

"He knows you can't be a stern taskmaster," he says, "because people would get turned off and quit coming."

Shaw founded RVS's Children's Concerts, which have performed to thousands of students over the years. He started The Chamber Players, which go into the schools to perform. He started Discovery Concerts, a series of one to three family concerts per year held on Saturdays and featuring reduced or free admission.

Things didn't always go as planned. Shaw runs through a checklist before a concert to make sure he has everything he needs: baton, score, vest and so on. One night he discovered to his horror he was wearing white socks. He and the stage manager quickly sat on the stage and swapped socks.

Another time the orchestra was performing Mussorgsky and Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and right near the end the lights went out. The trumpet player continued playing the melody, and the orchestra kept playing behind him.

"It was black," Shaw says. "I had nothing to do. Right before the last chord — the only point they'd need a conductor — the lights came on. Everybody thought it was on purpose."

It's no secret that many symphony orchestras are in trouble. Even in the largest cities many struggle to make ends meet and worry about an aging demographic.

"I think the smart orchestras will be OK," Shaw says. "Those that find a way to stay true to their values will survive."

He says he's proudest of the orchestra's progress. He regrets most not getting around to doing some favorite pieces, such as Mahler's second symphony. He'd like to see himself in five years as a master conductor in education, teaching and maybe guest-conducting.

"He'll be greatly missed," Stubson says.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.