Transformation in E Minor

Emotions vary as the Chico Symphony prepares to merge into the new North State Symphony

The Chico symphony performs the final concerts of its near 100-year history this Saturday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Harlen Adams Theater (with a matinee Sunday at 2 p.m.)

The Chico symphony performs the final concerts of its near 100-year history this Saturday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. in the Harlen Adams Theater (with a matinee Sunday at 2 p.m.)

Photo by Mark Thalman

After retiring six years ago from her job as a professor of nursing, Mary Memmer returned to her violin lessons. She began playing around 26 years ago and admits she was “not very good.” But, performing since 1975 with the Chico Symphony Orchestra, she slowly improved.

“I’m still not a professional,” she explains over the phone. But nobody could accuse her of not behaving like one. She was a dependable musician who worked at her craft and says she never missed a performance with the orchestra throughout her tenure. Now in her early 60s, she still practices the violin for two hours a day and says she has noticed further improvement now that she has more time to dedicate to her instrument.

Unfortunately, some longtime Chico Symphony players like Memmer are feeling anxious these days because they are being asked to audition for a spot in the orchestra. The old days when anybody with an instrument and the desire could join and play are over.

That’s because, after 98 years, the Chico Symphony Orchestra is about to disappear. It will play its final concert this weekend. Beginning next season, it will be merged with the Redding Symphony Orchestra and operate under a new name, the North State Symphony. It will play a full schedule in both cities.

The result, symphony leaders say, will be a stronger orchestra, both musically and financially, and the restoration of symphonic music to Redding. But there will be a cost: Some longtime players, like Memmer, may not make the final cut. And Chico will lose its name identification with the oldest and best symphony orchestra north of the Bay Area.

Whether that’s a trade-off that will be good in the long run remains to be seen, of course. In the meantime, supporters of the change believe not only that it will be good for symphonic music in the area, but also that it was an almost inevitable move.

Dr. Kyle Wiley Pickett is a busy man these days. The Chico Symphony conductor sits at the head of a conference table in an office of the Performing Arts Center on the university campus, going over details with co-workers concerning one of his many upcoming projects. Like so many conductors of the past, Pickett’s curly brown hair appears a bit tousled, as if the electricity of great works flows through his veins. In his early 30s, the fresh-faced California native exudes a youthful vigor and, from behind wire-rimmed glasses, a clear optimism for things to come.

“I’m excited about the artistic advantages of the upcoming merger,” he says. “This is a chance for us to not just take a step sideways but really take a step forward for what we can provide the community. We’ll have more challenging, more fun music and a broader variety of things.”

Pickett downplays the unfortunate need to cut some Chico Symphony members.

“In reality, it’s not going to change very much,” he says. “There will be a large component from Chico [in the new orchestra]. … But our mission here is to provide the highest quality. You have to look at it a couple of ways. One, it’s a group of people from the community who get together to play. Another is that it’s an orchestra for the community. Sometimes they’re the same thing; other times they’re not quite the same.”

A Stanford graduate, Pickett earned his master’s degree at Chico State in 1994, moving to Baltimore afterwards to pursue his doctorate in conducting at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music.

When asked what made him relocate to our area, he explains that his family had a vacation home on Lake Shasta and that he spent every summer there as a child. He and his wife Alice, a professional actor and “recreational violinist,” spent their honeymoon at the Shasta home and decided arbitrarily to remain in Ashland, Ore., where Pickett finished writing his dissertation on Schumann’s symphonies.

Coincidentally, the Redding Symphony was soon looking for a new conductor, and Pickett was a perfect fit. He started his new job in November 1998. A couple of years later, when Chico Symphony Conductor David Colson decided to take a sabbatical, Pickett applied for the hotly contested job. He took over in August of 2000, continuing to conduct the Redding Symphony as well as the Juneau Orchestra in Juneau, Alaska, for four concerts a year.

Conducting is an intensely emotional experience, he says. It “really takes everything from you and puts it out there. You’re just drained afterwards. … The genius is in what the composer wrote. What Brahms wrote, for example, I can’t touch that. What I can do is connect with it and try to let it out. … I want people to be moved and feel it. From a technical standpoint that means the quality of the sound and shape of the whole. The players play the notes, but I shape the whole.”

And, like all orchestra conductors, Pickett wants to work with the best musicians available. From that standpoint, merging the Chico and Redding orchestras makes perfect sense.

THE COUPLE THAT PLAYS TOGETHER <br>(pictured) Symphony conductor Dr. Kyle Pickett and his wife, violinist/actor Alice Pickett.

Photo by Mark Thalman

The idea of joining forces has been floating around for about five years, says John Gibbens, the development director for the university’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts and a principal mover behind the merger.

He points out that all involved agree that without the support of the university, which pays the conductor’s salary and provides Laxson Auditorium as a venue, the Chico Symphony never would have survived so long.

The hard work of the Chico Symphony Guild, longtime benefactors of the symphony, and the Chico Symphony Orchestra Association have provided some relief in the form of luncheons and benefits for scholarships and other causes, but money has always been a problem. The merger will take pressure off these small groups of individuals who have been doing all the fundraising work, Gibbens says.

While the Chico Symphony wasn’t about to go bankrupt, as the 14-year-old Redding Symphony did in 2000, each year proved to be a challenge to make ends meet, adds Susie Lundberg, the newly hired symphony director.

In fact, says Gibbens, the two orchestras have been connected for some time. Besides having the same man conducting them, they’ve shared players as well. “About one-third [of Redding’s musicians] were traveling from Chico to Redding to perform,” he said.

The new North State Symphony (NSS), which already has created a full schedule for next season, will operate in a three-tiered structure combining the best players from Redding and Chico, professional musicians from other areas, faculty members and from two to six top students from Chico State.

The NSS will function under a board of directors made up of both Chico and Redding community members and representatives of the university, which will continue to handle ticket sales, promotions, program design, the salary of Dr. Pickett, as well as such necessities as rehearsal space.

The operating costs of the NSS for the 2001-02 season have been estimated at $155,000 for the year, explains Dr. James Bankhead, chairman of the Chico State Music Department and acting executive director for the new symphony. Ticket sales are expected to net about $89,000 in annual revenue, leaving each community between $33,000 and $40,000 to raise on its own. Prices for Redding concert-goers will fall from their once staggering $25 per ticket to around $16.

The NSS is considered a semi-professional organization in that everyone is paid except for students and some of the faculty players.

In the 2002-03 season, the NSS will likely move its Redding concerts to the Cascade Theater, currently undergoing a $3.5 million renovation. Gibbens describes the venue as “absolutely outstanding.” Pickett adds that the group would also like to feature an outdoor Summer Pops event—a free concert for the community—saying that the new, stronger organization “puts us in a better position to find sponsors [and] gives us better resources to continue.” Outreach concerts to other Northern California communities such as Yreka, Quincy and Orland are also in the works.

Symphony mergers have happened about four times throughout the country during the last decade. When they did, it was usually in neighboring communities like Chico and Redding that share many resources, media outlets and businesses.

“It’s an unusual situation here because we are really jointly owned by the community and university,” Pickett says. “In the Western states, that’s pretty rare. Other parts of the country have orchestras like this, like in the Midwest. [But] Prop. 13 in 1978 really killed a lot of music education in schools out here. We’re still in the rebuilding process. … A regional orchestra like ours is in a nice position. We get artists when they’re young and up and coming. Hopefully, we will bring you people who, years later, may be the biggest in the business.”

But does the increase in orchestra quality and viability justify the dismissal of some loyal performers in the Chico and Redding symphonies? Pickett believes it does. Besides, he says, any cut musicians will still have the opportunity to perform with other local symphonies, like the ones in Paradise and Shasta, both fine orchestras in their own right. He knows because he has guest conducted there as well.

Chico Arts Commission staff member Mary Gardner believes the change should be appreciated for its positive aspects. “Symphonies are shutting down left and right,” she says. “In my mind, this is a creative solution. Just because we’ve had a Chico Symphony for 98 years doesn’t mean it can’t go away in three seconds. … There’s always going to be some sacrifice. It’s always a delicate thing.”

“Next year will be a big learning experience for us,” says Pickett.

It will also be a learning experience for local community members, as they find themselves enjoying a higher-quality and better-organized orchestra performing greater works.

As for Mary Memmer, she understands that change was inevitable and that the upcoming audition process is probably a good thing for her and others.

“There will be some hard changes," she sighs. "But the symphony can’t keep running in the red. That’s a death knell. As for me, if I hang on it will be by the grace of God," she says, breaking into a laugh.