Martin Majkut has served as music director of the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra since 2010. Under his leadership, the orchestra has grown to more than 80 musicians and the Symphony’s educational offerings have significantly expanded to include four different programs. We sat down to chat after a rehearsal late one afternoon.
EH: When did you get interested in music?
MM: I started playing piano when I was just shy of 6. I had many other interests, and my parents never forced me to practice. But I did well. After eighth grade, I went to the conservatory; they took me into both piano and conducting classes.
I started studying conducting when I was 14. You learn a lot of repertoire that way, but I did not fully comprehend what conducting entails until much later. After the conservatory, I went to the university, and concentrated on conducting. It became my life.
It’s a long road. Conducting takes a lot of time to learn. The orchestra is an instrument. Just like a pianist or a violinist, you have to spend many hours perfecting your instrument. With conducting, you can only do so much away from the orchestra. You need those hours with the orchestra to master the art.
The psychology of working with people is as important as musical talent. How do you handle working with 80 musicians who have distinct personalities and strong ideas about how things should go? Everyone needs a different approach. How do you motivate them? How do you manage them as a group? That’s something that we conductors keep learning throughout our lives. That’s’ something that keeps everything fresh for us. Every group is different, and there’s no single solution.
EH: What’s your chief strategy?
MM: I come from a place of inspiring, rather than threatening. I always try to maintain a positive atmosphere. Music is such an intimate expression of our inner world. You only open yourself up fully, if you get a kind invitation to do so. If you encounter someone who comes from a place of force, you close yourself. You can still play or sing the same notes, but you will not give your soul to it. I want the musicians to be unafraid, to be expressive, to be free and to play with soul. The more you empower the musicians, the better results you get and the better they make you look.
Also part of conducting is to know when to insert yourself forcefully in the process, to try to actively change things, and when it’s the time to control the flow of things without altering it too much. When you look at the great old masters of conducting, you see that they do almost nothing. But it takes experience to get to that place where you know: when you have to be in their face, and when you can almost disappear and empower them.
Because they are all very accomplished musicians, you have to trust them and let them play, rather than try to beat every note into them. You feed them ideas, and let them implement them. Don’t underestimate their musical intelligence.
EH: Tell me about your music education program.
MM: We are now sending our musicians to teach music at the Phoenix-Talent School District. Because they don’t have music on the elementary level, we are teaching third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students. And we pay for it, too.
The next Rogue Valley Symphony Concert is "Mendelssohn: The Hebrides," "Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2," and "Debussy: La Mer." Performances will be April 22 in the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, Ashland; April 23 in the Craterian Theater, Medford; and April 24 at Grants Pass High School. The performances are almost sold out. For tickets: Call 541-708-6400 or visit online: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding cast member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.