Everybody loves Kyle
Popular conductor takes the Laxson podium for the last time
Three years after Kyle Wiley Pickett became music director of the North State Symphony, cellist Robert Zadra had a thought: However long we can keep him here will be a blessing, because he’s destined to move on to bigger and better things.
That time has come. Last year, Pickett was selected as music director of symphonies in Topeka, Kan., and Springfield, Mo., two larger communities whose orchestras have significantly larger budgets. Pickett and his wife, Alice, and their two children now live in Springfield, a pretty city known as the “Queen of the Ozarks.”
As it turned out, Pickett stayed here more than 14 years. When he takes the podium for his last two NSS concerts this weekend, in Chico and Redding, it will be the end of era in which he was the driving force behind the creation of one of the finest regional orchestras in the country.
A native of the Bay Area, he’d earned a master’s degree in choral conducting at Chico State, so he knew the area well and fondly when he returned here in 1999, fresh out of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, newly minted doctorate in hand.
He was hired first in Redding and a year later in Chico. Both symphonies were weak, financially and musically, and he immediately saw the benefits of merging them into a single, stronger and, most important, professional symphony.
That first year, the 2001-02 season, the new North State Symphony presented eight performances of four concert sets in two cities, Chico and Redding. Ten years later, it had grown to 23 performances of 10 concert sets in six cities per year, and its budget had increased from $100,000 to $500,000, thanks to re-energized support groups in Redding and Chico, and Pickett’s unfailing willingness to meet with potential donors.
The bigger budget enabled the symphony to pay for excellent out-of-area players to augment the orchestra on a regular basis—although the main reason many of them came all the way to Chico and Redding was simply that “Kyle’s a real magnet,” said Zadra, a longtime member of the symphony board as well as a player.
He attributes this to several factors. One is that with Pickett “there’s never a negativity.” He’s always upbeat and positive and never critical, and this has created a deep sense of teamwork among the musicians.
Pickett also comes to rehearsals thoroughly prepared. “He knows the music better than anyone,” Zadra said, including its historical context and how other conductors have interpreted it. “Every rehearsal is like a music lesson.” Anyone who has attended one of Pickett’s pre-concert talks know what Zadra means.
The orchestra has improved dramatically over the years. In a phone interview the NSS’ executive director, Keith Herritt, remembered that it twice had performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, once in 2005, again in 2013, and the improvement was immediately noticeable.
In addition, Pickett has included interesting but relatively unknown modern works (the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Clarinet Concerto, for example) with increasingly complex classics (three big Mahler works, including the huge Symphony No. 8, with its massive vocal chorus).
He will be missed, though it’s pleasing to think how much the people of Springfield and Topeka will enjoy his music. The search is on for his replacement; the four finalists will each conduct one of the concerts in the 2014-15 season.
In the meantime, there’s one last Kyle Wiley Pickett concert to attend. Titled Harmonic Landscapes, it features works by Brahms and Benjamin Britten, as well as Dvorák’s Concerto for Cello, one of the most famous pieces for that instrument. Guest cellist David Requiro will be featured.
Pickett was not available to be interviewed for this story, but in a press release he expressed bittersweet feelings about leaving the NSS: “It’s been wonderful for me to perfect my craft here, and I am very grateful for the support and love I’ve gotten in the North State. Now it’s simply time to move on.
“It may sound odd,” he continued, “but this concert feels to me like a graduation. For me, but also for the North State Symphony, which has grown so much. Now the orchestra gets to show itself to new conductors.”