At the end of September 2018, on Rogue Valley Symphony’s opening night of the season in Medford, Oregon, the skies opened up a downpour of rain, like nature knifing through a smoke tarp suspended overhead at the corners and heavily laden with water. Enormous raindrops bounced off the ground while I ran a block in my suit to retrieve the 30×30 portrait on white canvas I had painted of the Symphony’s charming conductor, Martin Majkut.
I hadn’t seen Joelle Graves since our first meeting in Chicago in June for the League of American Orchestras Conference, where, having survived a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers outside the stadium, we sat a few seats away from each other for a White Sox home game. Within a few innings we had established that we were both from Oregon and both new to our orchestra work, with Joelle as a recently minted executive director of one of the most adored symphonies per capita in the country, Rogue Valley Symphony, and I as a painter of symphonies. We left the conference a few days later with a conspiracy to paint a portrait of Martin, if not the whole symphony, and quite possibly both.
Soaking wet I arrived back in the lobby ninety minutes before the season’s first concert, with the portrait facing downward to keep the oil paint out of the rain. Our initial idea was coming together much as we had first envisioned it. Martin’s exhilarated and buoyant passion came out in the portrait, and it was a strong likeness except for the lower jawline and an eyelid confusingly indistinguishable from a lens of his glasses. I had roughed in the painting only a week before, and most of my painting is done with a palette knife, so after rummaging through my leather and canvas messenger bag and not finding such a tool, Joelle and I searched the concert hall for anything that might stand in for one. Upstairs in a reception room she found a cheese spreader and I made progress on the eyelid and jaw on the spot, and then took the painting home until the work on both sides of the painting, administrative and artistic, could be finished. After the concert, plans progressed quickly and a full symphony painting due for auction in February got put on my calendar.
The symphony almost completely sells out each of three venues: Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass, each time it puts on a concert. I could see why, beginning when Maestro Majkut took to the stage for a pre-concert lecture about the night’s performance to come. Martin is personable, engaging, wicked smart, and funny. I understood a lot of what he said, but Bethany also was interested and informed by his remarks. He was able to illuminate the program for me, a newcomer to classical music, while still engaging someone with surpassing classical music knowledge, like Bethany. In his opening remarks on the new season, Maestro Majkut acknowledged the welcome rain on a region that for the night was basking in an illusion of relief from worst-in-a-generation wildfires; an illusion because the worst fires in the region’s recorded history were still to rear.
When the rosy light shone behind the musicians and Martin conducted lightly on the balls of his feet, I could feel the affinity of the full house knitted together with their symphony. By the time the full symphony painting was on my easel a few months later, it had been hell for thousands of neighbors not far to the south. The sky of the painting was a mixture of the last minutes of sunset and a prolonged clearing of smoke. I saw a lot of fire in the painting and also washes of that natural beauty of sage, and purple peaks, a floor of golden grasslands, and a glow that had settled on the mountains and valleys as Bethany and I left for our 4 hour drive home to the north, when the Rogue Valley took a fresh breath between ordeals, in reflection of its more constant and rugged grace. And speaking of grace, it is women musicians that are the essence of this painting, and the focus of the symphony’s upcoming season.