The competition heats up

Picking the new music director of the North State Symphony won’t be easy

Soloist Soheil Nasseri rehearses Schumann’s <i>Piano Cencerto in A Minor</i>, as conductor prospect Brian Stone encourages the symphony behind him.

Soloist Soheil Nasseri rehearses Schumann’s Piano Cencerto in A Minor, as conductor prospect Brian Stone encourages the symphony behind him.

photo by Brittany Waterstradt

North State Symphony: Imagine, Sunday, Nov. 16, Laxson Auditorium.

We’ve now seen two of the four candidates for music director of the North State Symphony in action. I don’t envy the members of the selection committee.

It would be tough enough to choose between the two who have served as guest conductors thus far, Christian Baldini and Brian Stone. Both helmed stirring concerts for which they and the orchestra received standing ovations. If the two remaining candidates, Scott Seaton and Peter Jaffe, do as well as the previous two did, making a final choice will be excruciatingly difficult. (For more information on the candidates, go to

As readers are no doubt aware, North State Symphony is seeking to replace former conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett, who left last season after more than a decade here to become music director of the Topeka, Kan., and Springfield, Mo., symphonies. The selection committee has pared down the more than 40 initial applicants to four finalists and commissioned each to conduct one of this season’s four programs.

It won’t be easy: These men may have musical proficiency in common, but they are greatly different in personality and approach.

Baldini, who is Argentinian by birth, is emotional and engaging, a youthful extrovert who loves to chat with the audience. Stone, in comparison, prefers to remain focused on the orchestra, and during Sunday’s concert in Laxson Auditorium he didn’t say a word. During his pre-concert talk in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall, however, he showed himself to be a skillful, highly knowledgeable lecturer.

Baldini opened his Sept. 20 Chico concert, dubbed Embark, with a lively rendering of Leonard Bernstein’s joyful “Overture to Candide” that showed off the orchestra’s sharp timing and cohesion. This was followed by three arias from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro sung by guest baritone Ryan Kuster. The program culminated in a magnificent rendering of Brahms’ monumental Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, which Baldini conducted entirely from memory.

Stone’s program Sunday afternoon, Imagine, began with Mozart’s unusually short (just eight minutes!) Symphony No. 32, which, as Stone explained during his pre-concert talk, is really an overture, the musical form from which the symphonic structure evolved. He chose it, he said, because it’s rarely performed and so offered “a clean slate” on which to show the orchestra members how he approaches a piece.

This was followed by Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, which Stone elsewhere has called “one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever written, the zenith of the romantic age in music.” The soloist was Soheil Nasseri, an American pianist (like Stone, he was born in Santa Monica) who despite his youth has played in prestigious concert halls around the world, including offering 20 completely different recital programs in New York City at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

Schumann wrote the concerto for his wife, Clara, herself a brilliant pianist. It’s a dazzling piece full of exciting piano runs, dramatic interplay between soloist and orchestra, and lovely melodies. Nasseri was brilliant—so much so that he garnered a standing ovation from a thrilled Laxson audience.

This was a tough act to follow, but Stone pulled it off following intermission with Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major. It predates the composer’s symphonic masterworks, numbers 7, 8 and 9, and isn’t performed as often as they are, but judging by Stone’s rich and precise interpretation, it deserves to be considered one of the great 19th-century symphonies.

As Stone explained during his talk, Dvorák sought to ingratiate himself with the music barons in German-speaking Vienna who had commissioned the piece while staying true to his Czech roots. The result was a symphony with multiple references to, for example, Brahms and Beethoven, but also one in which, as Stone has said, “he asserts his native Czech identity (particularly in the middle movements) by stamping his foot with lusty Bohemian folk rhythms and singing simple melancholy folk melodies.”

Stone is a passionate conductor. He eschews the baton, preferring to use his hands and, indeed, his whole body, to direct the players. He often appeared to be dancing ecstatically to the music, even as he was utterly focused on the players. They responded magnificently, giving this big, warm symphony the treatment it deserves.