Swan songs

Symphony conductor goes out with a flourish

Kyle Wiley Pickett rehearsed with the North State Symphony in Laxson Auditorium before his last Chico concert.

Kyle Wiley Pickett rehearsed with the North State Symphony in Laxson Auditorium before his last Chico concert.

PHOTO by melanie mactavish

Harmonic Landscapes, by the North State Symphony, Saturday, May 10, Laxson Auditorium, Chico State.

Saturday, May 10, was Kyle Wiley Pickett’s last performance in Chico after 14 years as music director and conductor of the North State Symphony. As usual, it began with a pre-concert talk in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall at Chico State, this time before a standing-room-only audience drawn there by the awareness that this would be the final opportunity to enjoy Pickett’s enlightening insights into the music on tap for the evening. When it was over, they gave him a rousing standing ovation.

Pickett explained that he had made his three selections in large measure because he was saying goodbye. For example, he’d chosen Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” from the opera Peter Grimes, because the orchestra had played it during its first season. The night’s performance would showcase how far the NSS had come, he said: “I thought we did a pretty good job [then], a credible job, but I know we can do much better today.”

Besides, he added, the piece comprises four impressionistic seascapes, and “I will miss the sea. It’s a very long way from Missouri.” (Pickett is now music director of the Springfield Symphony, a role he also fills in Topeka, Kan.)

When an audience member asked what his favorite instrument was, Pickett replied that, after rehearsing Dvorák’s Cello Concerto with guest cellist David Requiro that morning, he regretted having taken up the flute. Of all the instruments, the cello is closest to the human voice in its range and ability to convey emotion, he said.

On the other hand, playing the flute in his high-school marching band led to his becoming a conductor. Frustrated that his instrument couldn’t be heard above the din—it was a “fruitless effort,” he said—he decided to become a drum major, and thus a career was born.

A symphony orchestra, he said, is a profoundly collaborative project, one to which the musicians bring lifetimes of musical experience. As “the chief collaborator,” it’s his job to merge the skills and insights of the players with his own vision of what a piece should be. If all goes well, he suggested, magic occurs.

That’s exactly what happened a few minutes later, when the orchestra launched into the Dvorák concerto before a nearly full Laxson audience. Requiro, who grew up in Oakland and is currently artist in residence at the University of Puget Sound, is just 28 years old and looks even younger, but he’s in every way a mature musician. He doesn’t just play his cello, he merges with it, and the sounds that poured forth were rich and vibrant.

The Dvorák is exceedingly difficult. Pickett called it “the hardest concerto I’ve ever conducted.” There were times during this gorgeous piece when Requiro’s hands moved faster than the eyes could follow, but his performance was flawless, and he received able support from the orchestra.

Following intermission, the orchestra moved through the 20th century sounds of Britten’s “Sea Interludes.” At his talk, Pickett had said the four Peter Grimes interludes—“Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight” and “Storm”—encapsulate the opera’s story of an outsider brought to ruin by misguided townsfolk. He said to listen for the sound of sunlight glittering off water and the church bells of “Sunday morning”—and sure enough, there they were.

The concert ended with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which Pickett earlier said was a practical joke of sorts. After receiving an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, Brahms learned he was expected to respond by composing something for the school. Brahms reluctantly complied, but he did so by basing the composition on student drinking songs. Ironically, it became, as Pickett said, “one of the most beautiful overtures in the history of romantic music.”

It was a grand way for Pickett to go out—a big, brassy, joyful Brahms piece, the kind the orchestra plays so well, preceded by a brilliantly rendered cello concerto and Britten’s impressionistic tone poems. The crowd loved all of it and gave the maestro and the musicians a standing ovation that went on for several minutes. It stopped only when Pickett turned, just as he was exiting the stage for the fourth time, and waved goodbye.

Then the lights came up, and he was gone.