Musical firsts

North State Symphony

The North State Symphony, under the baton of its fine director, Kyle Wiley Pickett, scored a number of firsts this past weekend.

Friday morning, the group played the first concert for bused-in schoolchildren given by an area symphony for as long as anyone can remember, as a good thousand youngsters filled Chico’s Laxson Auditorium. Second, it packed both Laxson and Redding’s Shasta Learning Center nearly to capacity, drawing larger audiences than I remember either the Redding or Chico Symphony having attracted for years. And third, it took on and performed almost flawlessly one of the most challenging works around, Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Pickett took the concert-opening Dvorák Carnival Overture at a terrific pace, making it somewhat jangled in Laxson, where one is never sure just what sounds are going to get lost in the upper reaches of the stage. It worked better in Redding, where the acoustics are excellent. And, overall, the speed had the additional effect of setting off the beauties of the work’s exquisite, pastoral mid-section (flutist Heidi Pintner and English hornist Kenton Gould) more cleanly.

This was followed by a superb rendition of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, perhaps the world’s best known, with its opening four-note descending pattern (sol-mi-re-do). The pianist, Moscow Conservatory-trained Alexander Tutunov, a slight young man who looked to be in his mid-30s, performed with humor, obvious delight and total control. The work, with an extended First Movement (almost a concerto in itself), feels as if it contains a million notes, and Tutunov’s hands were often little more than skin-colored blurs above the keyboard. The orchestra, which interacts with the soloist through a combination of pensive solos (especially cellist Michael Palzewicz and flutist Pintner) and sweeping counter-themes, was generally excellent.

However, the concert’s brightest jewel was the concluding Pictures at an Exhibition. Starting out as a series of piano sketches by Mussorgsky, the work was later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, and it is in Ravel’s orchestration—his choices of instruments and effects—that the real genius lies. Connected by variations on a “promenade” theme, Mussorgsky and Ravel create musical pictures of 12 different paintings and sketches, including a nutcracker that “cracks,” a haunting saxophone solo (Greg D’Augeli) depicting a ruined castle, a woodwind “nya-nya-nya” of kids set against a string-section lullaby by their nursemaids, the lumbering basses of a Polish oxcart, the scrambling squeaks of chicks in their shells, an argument between a comfortably rich old Jew (lower strings) and his whining neighbor (trumpeter Brian Anderson, who gets my vote for the work’s outstanding soloist), and the like. I think one would have to go a long way to hear Pictures better or more engagingly played. What a treat!