On the road again

A weekend run with Kyle Wylie Pickett and the impressive Northstate Symphony Orchestra

I became a bit of a Kyle Wylie Pickett groupie this weekend, as I followed the Northstate Symphony Orchestra and its stunningly good program from Chico’s Harlen Adams Theatre to Redding’s Shasta Learning Center’s acoustically fine auditorium to Red Bluff’s beautiful art deco (and partially renovated) State Theatre.

Conductor Pickett’s intelligently chosen and superbly performed program was as exciting for the third listening as for the first. It opened with Prokofiev’s crisp march from The Love for Three Oranges. (Did J. Edgar Hoover know that this march, which was used as the theme for This Is Your FBI, was written by a “commie"? I doubt it.) This was followed by the tragic-beautiful “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s “verismo” opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, a pastoral piece celebrating the flowing warmth and abiding beauty of the rural Sicilian countryside, something that will soon be shattered for the opera’s protagonist, whose foolishness will lead to a fatal duel not long after.

Next came Rossini’s virtuosic Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, played by 15-year-old Katelynn Palmer, a NSSO Concerto Contest winner. Seriously intense and somewhat nervous, Palmer improved from performance to performance and often rose to some rather fantastic displays of dexterity in a piece in which the speed of the “theme” doubles in the first variation, doubles again in the second, goes champagne-bubbly in the third, wailingly bluesy in the fourth, and rip-roaringly all over the place in the fifth.

The concert also included two remarkable sets of scene-painting pieces, “The Princess Kills a Deer” and “A Song” from former Chico Symphony conductor Alfred Loeffler’s undervalued and under-performed opera, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and four difficult and gorgeous interludes from Benjamin Britten’s powerfully grim, naturalistic opera, Peter Grimes. The Loeffler works were darker than one might expect for a comedy, filled with drum rolls, muted fanfares and fantastical xylophone work undergirded by darkly ominous tones. The Britten pieces were cold and hard (as befits the world of the opera) but also brilliant; depicting the unforgiving white light of the rising sun, the cacophony of morning bells (wondrously produced by all sorts of instrumental combinations), the fractured spots of moonlight on a threatening ocean and the waves of a pounding storm.

However, most people will probably remember this concert for Chico music Professor Ying Yeh’s intensely beautiful rendering of the famous “Mad Scene” from Donizetti’s movingly tragic Lucia di Lammermoor, a long scene in which the suffering Lucia of the title is kept from singing the main theme until (and then only briefly) the end of her performance and is accompanied by a flute obbligato (flutist Heidi Pintner) that variously suggests ineluctable fate, a god-like perspective the distraught singer lacks, and the singer’s saner other self, and that also calls for a couple of high E-flats! All this Yeh (and Pintner) handled beautifully and with exact intonation—perhaps most tellingly so in their coloratura runs up and down the scale toward the scene’s end.

And there is no room to mention the rich mix of “rolling river” and “infinite possibility” motifs in the concert-ending “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” (Wagner’s Götterdämmerung) or the lovely duet from Rigoletto, sung by Diane O’Sullivan and Liang Zhang for the Red Bluff performance. I would, however, put in a bid for improved program notes telling us something brief about the performers and giving us a couple of musical “ways in” to such a program’s splendors.

Finally, speaking of Red Bluff, I must give brief mention to Mercy High School’s fine School Choir, which gave a series of movingly sung liturgical programs over the past weekend, beginning Thursday evening in Red Bluff’s beautiful Sacred Heart Church. The choir contains a formidable “front line” of sopranos (Lauren McCarthy, Katie Babb, Melanie Dreifort, Jenny Davis and Amira Dweik), who sing with excellent projection and well-supported voices and have also garnered a number of awards—most recently three gold and one silver medals at the California Voice Finals.

This choir, and its energy-filled, program-wise and warmly supportive young director, Brian Peterson, is a group to hear.