The first century
North State Symphony turns 100
There are some lovely photos from the earliest days of the North State Symphony, then the Normal Symphony or the Chico Symphony—small groups of 15 to 20, mostly college-age players. There are also many years’ worth of programs showing the symphony’s growth and its often strikingly ambitious undertakings as it developed from its beginnings in 1905 to its present incarnation.
These early pictures remind one of how things have changed. The notion that playing a stringed instrument or learning a little piano was a normal thing—especially among those relative few going on to higher education—and that such players would have learned about classical music and would enjoy getting together to play it has changed over the years. Television and consumerism have made commodities of many formerly simple collective pleasures. Instead of making casual music ourselves, many of us now watch “specials” on television and “headliners” when they perform as parts of “public events” series. As a result, any local symphony has to look over its shoulder at the big guys and do its best to compete and to publicize as the big guys do. There’s a kind of narrowing in this, in our becoming watchers and not doers—at least with regard to classical music.
The North State Symphony has responded to these trends. Many of the student players (especially in the strings) have been replaced by professional and semi-professional older musicians, and the less-expert community players who once enjoyed “playing along” are gone. There is an increasingly large publicity apparatus, and a fine young conductor (Kyle Wiley Pickett) who is not hindered by a heavy university teaching load (as were his immediate predecessors—Walter Dahlin, Alfred Loeffler and David Colson) has been brought in, and the North State Symphony has become a first-rate orchestra. This is lucky for us, but what about the long term?
Dr. Pickett is truly amazing, having conducted success after success. He is gifted in many ways—in his positive, professional bearing, and, musically, in his fine sense of drama, a sense revealed in his controlled tempos, his dynamic shifts from louds to softs and back again, his ability to delineate and reveal individual orchestra sections so the listener can follow the music, and his use and support (i.e. bringing the orchestra way down) of many fine soloists: (for this last concert) clarinetist Russell Burnham, flutist Yael Ronen, hornist Keith Bucher, bassoonist Beverly McChesney and trumpeter Brian Anderson—for starters.
Laxson Auditorium’s great secret is that the best place to hear the orchestra is from the front section of the balcony. Not only is the sound better, it is also easier to follow the music visually and to watch the soloists. This made the Saturday evening’s first-half pieces, Leonard Bernstein’s rip-roaring, Rossini-styled Overture to Candide (1954) and George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (played as if he owned it by Belarusian pianist Alexander Tutunov), especially engaging.
One’s first response to the Gershwin Concerto is, “Well, this is something like his Rhapsody in Blue, which I know and like and is probably better.” I think this is a half-truth, however. Throughout, but especially in its bluesy, thoughtfully meandering Second Movement, the piece becomes a rich way-station on the path from the close, small-ensemble pieces of performers like Gershwin’s contemporary Duke Ellington to, let us say, Bernstein’s On the Town (1944).
The second half’s richly dark, Nineteenth-Century-long Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 (1888) was best heard in Redding’s Cascade Theatre, where the hall’s box-like shape helped tighten and intensify the music—all the way from its glorious opening horn and clarinet solos to its deliciously intensifying, last-minute shift from 4/4 to waltz time.
Local support for the symphony in this, its 100th season, is stupendous and highlighted by elegant Symphony Guild-sponsored feasts (more than 250 attended) before and after the Chico concert. However, the sore truth remains that the vast majority of people at both concerts were over 40. As good as it is, the North State Symphony still face the supreme challenge: engaging the young as they were once engaged. Otherwise, classical music is doomed.