Swinging with the Symphony

The 104th season opens with joint-jumpin’ Ellington, magisterial Beethoven

A packed stage of classical and jazz musicians was set in motion for the symphony’s season opener.

A packed stage of classical and jazz musicians was set in motion for the symphony’s season opener.

Photo By jason cassidy

North State Symphony’s “Icons,” Sunday, Sept. 27, Laxson Auditorium.

The sight of concertmaster Terri Baune standing up and riffing a hot jazz solo on her violin said it all: The North State Symphony was cooking!

That’s what happens when you bring together an orchestra, a jazz ensemble with a big, powerful horn section and one of Duke Ellington’s masterful symphonic compositions, Night Creature. Not only was this great American music, it was sophisticated, complex and, most of all, swinging! It certainly was the highlight of the North State Symphony’s 104th-season-opening concert—titled “Icons”—Sunday (Sept. 27) in Laxson Auditorium.

Granted, the members of the symphony probably enjoyed playing the featured composition, Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 5, more than they did the Ellington. As everybody knows, the Fifth, with its familiar four-note short-short-short-long opening motif, is a big, magisterial work that also happens to be one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in the canon, and for the musicians it was the kind of challenge that makes all those hours of training and rehearsal worthwhile.

Besides, Night Creature (1955) was written for a jazz orchestra, not a classical symphony, so it wasn’t a perfect fit—the strings, for example, didn’t have a lot to do other than fill up the sound, sort of like the rhythm guitar in a rock band, only huge. But there were many terrific solo opportunities, and the orchestra certainly got in the rhythmic groove created by the lively percussion section and driven forward by the powerful horns of Chico State’s Rocky Winslow-directed Jazz X-Press band. Picture Candice LiVolsi, usually the epitome of grace and elegance at her large, golden harp, slapping away at the strings like it was a standup bass, and you get an idea of the transformation that was going on.

The Beethoven was outstanding, of course. This orchestra is in fine form, thanks to the leadership of Kyle Wylie Pickett, who was honored Sunday for his 10th anniversary at the podium. The days when folks had to apologize for the local symphony by saying, “Well, it’s a small town,” are long gone. The performance was authoritative and precise. As a woman sitting near me, attending her first symphony performance, said, “Gosh, I didn’t realize they were so good.”

The concert opened with the first movement of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, with 17-year-old Young Artists college and university winner Jeremiah Trujillo, of Redding, doing the honors. And he did impressively well, handling this big work, with its several dramatic climaxes interspersed with delicate, even dreamy piano solos, with the right mix of bravado and sensitivity, much to the audience’s delight.

As usual, the NSS will present four full concerts this season, but they will be augmented by a number of additional, chamber-size performances and other events. Highlights include the Sonata for String Orchestra by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes and The Fantasia by Vaughan Williams, both part of the “Sonorous Strings” concert Nov. 14-15; Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring Chico State’s extraordinary Natalyn Shkoda on piano, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, both part of the “Hot Passions from Cold Climates” concert Feb. 20-21; and Lowell Lieberman’s Clarinet Concerto, featuring Jon Manasse, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, during the final concert of the season, titled “The Bold and the Beautiful,” May 15-16.

Symphony musicians will deploy to several other fundraising events, beginning this weekend with the Mozart Mile run in Lower Bidwell Park, where they will be adding musical accompaniment to the race. Look also for “An Evening in Tuscany” on Oct. 23 (location TBD), the Starlight Hollywood Dinner Dance at the Sierra Nevada Big Room on Jan. 30, and a performance of Schubert’s delightfully watery “Trout” Quintet on March 28 at the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall at Chico State.