Vision 2020: Martin Majkut

Rogue Valley Symphony's energetic conductor: music education in the schools is the key to getting people into concert halls

Conductor Martin Majkut divides his time between the East and West Coasts. He’s in his third season as musical director for the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York. Fortunately for Oregonians, his West Coast life is rooted in Southern Oregon, where he has spent nearly a decade as conductor for the Rogue Valley Symphony.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), Majkut graduated from the State Conservatory and served as assistant conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic while earning his Ph.D. in conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in 2003 and earned a DMA, his second doctorate, in 2008, at the University of Arizona.

He’s been with the Rogue Valley Symphony since 2010, during which time the symphony marked its 50th anniversary.

Martin Majkut conducts symphony orchestras on both coasts. For its size and location, he says, Southern Oregon has a surprisingly vibrant art scene. Photo by: Christopher Briscoe

I know you split your time between two symphonies on two coasts, but I’m wondering if you could briefly characterize the general state of artistic and cultural life in the Medford area. What’s going on there? What should the rest of Oregon know?

I jokingly maintain that Rogue Valley has “more arts than it deserves.” What I mean is that for its size and its location, the arts scene is surprisingly vibrant, with a number of organizations producing good quality work. Lots of it, however, is driven by the retirees, who come by and large from the Bay Area. They move to Rogue Valley for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and discover other local institutions, which they are happy to support, as arts have been part of their lifestyle in their previous life. The local arts boards consist mainly of people who were not born in the area. As much as we strive to enrich everyone’s life, deep down it is still a rural area and arts are an import.

Here is an anecdote for you: the RVS has had an increasingly difficult time booking venues. Things are getting busier and busier every year. That is the testament to the richness of the local cultural scene. I would love to have a performing arts center for 1,200 people in the valley.

What would you like people to know about the symphony?

The RVS commissioned five works for its 50th anniversary two years ago. That is unprecedented for an orchestra of our size and it landed me an opportunity to be a speaker at the League of American Orchestras Conference. We keep commissioning works and do ambitious programming and yet, our audiences are enthusiastic. It can be done!

The RVS is an institution that is forward-funded. On January 1 of each year, we start raising funds for the following season. Our financial stability makes many other orchestras envious. Although the players are mostly local, we do bring in players from outside of the area. We have regulars coming from as far as Los Angeles and Whidbey Island by Seattle. Our concertmaster comes from Phoenix, Arizona. Lastly, we bring high-quality soloists. This is yet another way to maintain relevancy and to improve our performance skills. 

What, more than anything, has had the single biggest impact on the arts either in your own area, or in Oregon generally, in the last few years?

The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools. It is increasingly difficult to replace the patrons, who either are too old to come or who pass away, with younger people.  Also, the recent tax law change means we receive more gifts from our top donors and they are more generous. However, the number of small donors declined dramatically.

This gets back to what you mentioned earlier, about the arts in Southern Oregon being, to a large extent, retiree-driven. Aging audiences are a concern everywhere, from theaters to concert halls, so I’m curious what, if anything, is going on there — either through the RVS’s efforts or what you’ve heard about — to bring in new, younger audiences, to cultivate an interest in symphonic music among young people? And, if not enough is being done, what ought to be done?

It’s a complex question, though not a new one. I once read a commentary from the New York Times from the 1910s. It lamented that our art form was dying because everyone in the audience was silver-haired.

The key is the emphasis on music education. Introduce kids to music, then let them go through their busy lives until they are in the place, philosophically as well as in terms of time and resources, when they start looking around for things to enrich their lives.

It’s very difficult to get people in the concert hall who are raising kids, are living on a restricted budget, and are exhausted when they get home from work every evening. You can get their attention with pops concerts but it has been proven that pops audiences by and large do not metamorphose into classical concert attendees. It is next to impossible to get people in the hall who have no prior experience with classical music. Even when they retire, they will look for other hobbies. That’s why music education is so crucial.

The RVS has several educational programs. Among others, we have been providing elementary-level music education to the school district, which had no music. We have been doing it for about six years through Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program. This year, the district announced they will add a music teacher, which I consider a big win.

We also ran a campaign this summer called Test Drive the Symphony. People who have never been could get two free tickets to our concerts. Through this campaign, we were able to replenish our patron base, but we were unable to arrive at a number larger than last year’s.

Martin Majkut greets soprano Christina Kowalski following Rogue Opera’s 2013 performance of “Madama Butterfly.”

Speaking of young people, how would you advise a young person who expresses an interest in a musical career?

I would tell them that the world is a big place and that there is tremendous competition out there. This is especially relevant to young people from geographically isolated areas. If your goal is to have a career as a professional musician, you have to be truly dedicated and work very, very hard. Also, they need to find an opportunity to measure themselves against their peers from outside their area.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced promoting the arts? What are the opportunities or goals you expect to work on in the coming year?

We live in a troubled and complicated world right now. In times like these, I feel that the programming should take on a bit more soothing, therapeutic quality. When the world is confusing, people crave harmony. When the world is complicated, they want comprehensibility. It is much harder to sell a complicated, intellectually complex program right now. People are more open to that kind of exploration when the times are good. At the same time, the current problems cannot be ignored, with climate change being on the top of the list. We are planning to address this topic with several compositions in the coming year.

Personally, I expect to keep having a busy professional life. It should be a year when I expand my reach beyond the orchestras and institutions that I am already partnering with.

***

This is the twelfth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes the renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

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