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Martin Majkut’s journey: Pianist, rock band bass guitarist, RVS conductor

Conductor Martin Majkut and the Rogue Valley Symphony will sail into a post-pandemic world with Masterwoks 5, performed April 22-24 in Medford and Grants Pass. Christopher Briscoe photo.
The next concert program for RVS and Music Director Martin Majkut will be performed April 22-24. Courtesy photo.

Rogue Valley Symphony Music Director Martin Majkut wasn’t born a conductor, but the prospect of a career at the podium loomed early in his life.

Majkut learned to play several instruments, even playing bass guitar in a rock band in his teens, but it was piano first and foremost. He started taking lessons at the age of 6 in an after-school music program, practicing many hours a day.

“It was of a very good quality and cost next to nothing,” he said.

Conducting came along a few years later at the suggestion of a composer and encouraged by his parents.

In preparation for the piano entrance exam to the Conservatory of Music in Batislava, Slovakia, where he was born and raised, his piano teacher’s composer husband agreed to test young Majkut’s skills. The Conservatory is a secondary school with a focus on the arts.

“After our session, he told my parents I had the right kind of personality to be a conductor and said I should consider going for a conducting exam as well,” Majkut said. “I said yes to my parents because I was a good kid!” He entered the school at age 14 and studied there for six years.

Although he’s the only musician in the family, his parents valued the arts and passed that appreciation on to their sons.

“They took my brother and me to concerts, galleries, museums, ballet, opera, and theater all the time,” Majkut said.

He doesn’t remember a specific musical experience or performance that was the source of an aha moment. It was more a sum of all those early concert outings that inspired him towards a career in music.

“I also sang a lot in choirs in my teens and 20s. Those experiences helped me tremendously to advance as a musician,” Majkut said.

He went on to earn a PhD from the University of Performing Arts in Bratislava, where he also served as assistant conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.

A Fulbright scholarship brought him to America, where he earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Arizona. He was assistant conductor with Arizona Opera in Phoenix just prior to moving to the Rogue Valley in 2009 to assume the RVS conducting position.

A conductor has two jobs on the podium, one in service of the composer and the other in service of the musicians.

“It starts by sending my notes along with the schedule for the upcoming concert,” he said. “Then we meet for rehearsals before our concerts — usually four of them, often three in a row.

“The bulk of the work happens in rehearsals. Bringing music from the page to life is a fascinating challenge. It never is not interesting.”

Majkut communicates his ideas about a work with a combination of musical skills and psychology while conducting, with gestures and body language. Besides conveying the vision of the composer, the conductor also has to inspire the musicians.

“The better the musicians, the more inspiration they require,” he said, “because they already know the style.”

Inspiration is in helping the orchestra approach a work as if playing it for the very first time, joining the conductor on a journey of discovery together.

“However, a conductor needs to talk, too,” he said. “The secret is to know what to say, how to say it, and know when to stop!”

Crucial to the process, a conductor must establish credibility with the orchestra.

Majkut summarized his approach:

“I go by a simple rule,” he said. “I can only demand if I come prepared. The authority comes naturally when musicians sense that their conductor knows the music inside and out.”

That said, the maestro believes there is room for self-expression in the orchestral setting.

“Yes, I have the final word, but I actively take in all aural feedback,” he said. “I hear what my musicians are bringing to the table and try to incorporate as much of it as possible into my concept. That is why every performance is slightly different, which is so beautiful about a live concert.”

One of Majkut’s joys is working with guest artists, many of whom are of a very high caliber. Inspiring a sense of esprit de corps with guests is a balancing act, recognizing their expertise and artistry while leading collaboration with the orchestra.

“My job is to intuit what interpretive choices they are going to make, based on what I hear as their overall concept of a work, and then lead the orchestra in the same interpretation.”

It requires anticipating what the soloist is going to do at any given moment. He meets them ahead of the first rehearsal, noting that it usually takes no more than 30 minutes to figure out what they are after.

Achieving a successful collaboration during the performance also involves balancing when to lead and when to follow.

“I follow their intent as closely as possible,” he said. “I succeed when they feel comfortable. In a way, I am trying to make them be unaware that there is an ensemble there. The orchestra should be like an extension of their mind.”

There are specific spots in a work where he may have to take the lead.

“I have to say, here you are following me because it is the only way to make it work,” he said. “But even then, I want to conduct like they would if they could. Accompanying a concerto cannot be a selfish endeavor.”

Majkut often conducts without a score, but never with a soloist.

“I often conduct an overture or a symphony from memory because I have full control to shape pieces as I please,” he said. “But in a concerto, I try to be an extension of the soloist. The concerto is not really my baby. I try to keep my mind open to interpretations that are different from my own.”

Majkut balances his RVS responsibilities with his job as music director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York, and occasional guest appearances, such as with the Slovak Philharmonic scheduled for May.

“It works quite well. I am usually very busy in New York in the summer when the RVS does not perform,” he said. “And I go there seldomly when I am busy with the RVS.”

He says patrons valued RVS’s projects during the pandemic.

“They appreciated that we kept an active profile and that we were able to come up with creative ways to present music,” he said.

With the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, he has a dozen concerts scheduled for the next three months in the Rogue Valley, New York and Slovakia.

Returning to “normal” is an exhilarating prospect for Majkut.

“What I look forward to most is connecting with people. There is nothing better than the communion of souls experienced through a live music performance.”

Next on the RVS schedule is its Masterworks 5 concert, “Reaching for the Sky,” with guest artist Otis Murphy on alto saxophone. On the program are Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World,” Tomasi’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra,” Weiss/Thiele’s “What a Wonderful World,” and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.”

Concerts are at 7:30 p.m. April 22- 23 in Medford and 3 p.m. April 24 in Grants Pass. Tickets and information are available at rvsymphony.org or by calling the box office at 541-708-6400. As COVID-19 restrictions ease — masks were not required at the last concert on March 27 — ­you can also find out about current RVS guidelines for attendance.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.