When I interrupted Martin Majkut to let him know that the Hebrew word for breath, neshama, was the same for soul, his narrow, barely-caffeinated morning eyes snapped wide. It felt as though lightning had creased the air in our corner of the Boulevard Café. On the back of my neck, the hair was on end.
The 36-year-old second-year conductor of the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra had been sharing a discovery he made a few years back. More than with his baton, or with his eyes, or with the articulate rhythmic pulsing of his willow-like limbs, Majkut can draw his musicians into a meaningful and profound communion merely with his breathing.
“When you inhale and exhale with the musicians, there’s a much greater chance that you will all be there together. You can then do almost nothing with your hands… just breathe.
“Say you have to bring in the trumpet, double bass, the piccolo and timpani; they all create sounds differently. How do you show them with one gesture, one that will work perfectly well with all of them? By breathing. We all breathe.”
While crediting the technique, Majkut acknowledges he is no more conscious of it during a performance than he is of the way his body tangos intimately and intriguingly with his partner, the music.
For Majkut, the idea that breath and soul are synonymous resonates as an affirmation of the obvious.
Equally obvious, as I witnessed his work during a dress rehearsal for the season’s first concert, is how he inspires his players, illustrating the essence of the word while magnificently manifesting the metaphor.
Majkut (pronounced My-koot), grew up and studied in his native Slovakia, before moving to the United States to attend the University of Arizona on scholarship where he earned his second doctorate in orchestral conducting. Even before leaving his homeland, Majkut had established himself as a rising star in the classical world, becoming, at age 25, the youngest-ever assistant conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic.
Since I’ve always been fascinated by fame and its addictive power, I wondered how Majkut related to that stardom and the attention inherent in his role. As a segue, I quoted a Facebook Group Page titled: “Martin Majkut Makes Beethoven and Mozart Look Like a Couple of Hacks.” The Group Category says “Music-Religious,” and the Description begins:
“This is a group dedicated to the Slovakian prodigy of music composition and conducting, Dr. Martin Majkut, who can also be referred to as Maestro or Greatest Musical Genius of All Time.” The accolades only get deeper from there.
Wincing as he chuckled, Majkut explained that the page was produced as a gag by an adoring prep school student he’d been teaching as part of his academic program in Arizona. (These days, he’s teaching aural skills at Southern Oregon University.) As for the lure of fame, and the inherent risks, he says he made a conscious effort to cope with it, refusing to allow the attention to detract from his mission to move audiences with his music.
“I caught myself very early on, after my first concert with a professional orchestra.” He was only 22 at the time. “All of a sudden, I’m in front of guys three times my age, many of them professors in the school, and they’re all quiet, and I’m telling them what to do.
“It got into my head,” he says. “I found myself walking the corridors [of the school] and wondering why people aren’t saying hello to me first, before I say anything to them.” He quickly realized what was happening. “I remember thinking that I was on the road to hell. I’ve always been able to see the early signs.
“I’m telling you that I didn’t get hooked,” he says. Then he pauses thoughtfully, smiles and adds, “Maybe someone else would tell you otherwise.
“I don’t mind the attention. I’m a conductor. You’ve got to enjoy the public exposure. But when I hear applause at the end of a concert, I never take it personally; the applause is for them, the musicians. I always have that mindset. It’s not about me. It’s only the art that is important; it’s about telling the story of the music.”
Dubbed a prodigy in his youth, Majkut recalls receiving numerous offers before he left Europe to leapfrog the field of older, more experienced and knowledgeable conductors. He remembers turning them down, aware that his own foundation was hardly firm.
“I didn’t feel ready. And I was worried people would see, as in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, that the king was naked. I wanted to get to the point where I was ready to give something meaningful out.”
When he’s on the podium, during a concert, Majkut, clearly confident and animated, describes himself as “being in a zone,” his senses heightened as he is sandwiched between walls of energy.
“I can feel something on my back. Is the audience electrified? Are they drifting off? Is this an audience that wants you to succeed or loves you? If you feel they don’t care for you, you want to try to excite them, to find what works.”
Meanwhile, playing midwife for the orchestra, as the musicians birth a piece of music, Majkut becomes a human tuning fork, resonating and responding.
“Say, if you always go for a heroic expression of a certain passage, but all of a sudden the horn comes in with a sweeter mellower sound; you find yourself conducting differently, maybe emphasizing a long span of the phrase.
“Or you feel one player is shining that day, the guy is really rocking; I will hush a little bit the other sections and bring that person up so he or she can enjoy, and the audience can get a kick out of it.”
For Majkut, the Holy Grail as a conductor is always to achieve an almost mystical sense of unity. He recalls one such moment during the final performance last season, conducting Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
“I don’t know what happened there,” he says. “I saw an amazing group of people becoming one and pulling toward a common goal, seeing them unified in such a profound way. I got really emotional and for the first time as a conductor, I almost burst into tears.”
Those in the audience, no doubt, must have experienced the very same thing. How could they not?
Says Majkut, “I like to think of every performance as if it is the last one on this earth. You have to go all in, with no reservations. “
The season’s second concert, featuring cello soloist Chas Barnard playing Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1, along with pieces by Wagner and Schumann, is set for the weekend of Nov. 4-6 in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass. (See www.rvsymphony.org for details.)
…and thanks in advance for introducing me to the people you care about who are considering buying–or selling–a home in Ashland and Southern Oregon! Just pick up your phone and give me a call so we can figure out how best to make that introduction: 541-778-8949