Where the music grows
Behind the scenes at rehearsals for North State Symphony’s An American Celebration
The North State Symphony takes five three-hour rehearsals to prepare for a week of concerts, three rehearsals the week before and two the week of.
I went to watch the first of these rehearsals last Friday evening in the Chico State Performing Arts Center’s maroon-and-white “Band Room.” My first and, ultimately, my overwhelming impression was of conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett’s supremely efficient and gracious manner in running what was, in actuality, a “first reading” of three of five selections for the coming concert/celebration of American composers Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Not a harsh word was spoken, and the musicians seemed to have total respect for their leader.
Of course, most of the musicians are pros or semi-pros (high-school music teachers, former music majors or conservatory students, home-teachers of specific instruments), and they had studied the music before arriving. Perhaps 20 or so of them (out of a full complement of about 60) live nearby, and about 10 more are students—a couple of violinists from area high schools and a handful of university students in the wind, brass and percussion sections.
Dressed in khakis and a green shirt, Pickett raised his baton at about 7:02, and the orchestra began to “read through” Barber’s “Overture to The School for Scandal,” written in 1931, when the composer was 21. It was the one piece I did not know, but it was increasingly delightful to listen to.
Pickett interrupted the first play-through relatively little, mostly to talk about tricky rhythms ("Treat those three-beat measure as if they have two pulses,” and “Just think ‘bop, bop, bop, bip-bip, bop, bop,’ and you’ll get the feel of it."). After each interruption, there would be a clatter of pencils as musicians made quick notes on their scores and dropped their pencils back onto their metal stands.
After the first run-through, which already sounded fairly good, Pickett called out measure numbers and worked over individual sections, with more “bop-bops,” explanatory comments ("Strings, this has to have a really bounced-off-the-string feel to it; it has to be very dry, almost woody") and a quick moment of light-hearted banter (Pickett: “Have you got this?” Faculty clarinetist Russell Burnham: “I’m followin’ you, fella").
And so the piece, with its attractive textures and lovely central melody, grew and grew, and I found myself envying the players their opportunity to grow with the music as it was talked through (and feeling sorry for the audiences, who would get to hear it only once).
The concert’s other four selections, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring, Barber’s famously rich Adagio for Strings and a suite from Bernstein’s On the Town, were all written between 1938 and 1945. After an hour on the “Overture,” Pickett moved to Appalachian Spring. This work, which opens with what is clearly a sunrise and is remarkable for its open intervals, avoidance of the romantically comfortable sub-dominant chord, single notes played by two or three instruments (with the result that one can sometimes hear the “way-out-there” wobbling of overtones), tricky four-to-six-note bits of syncopation, and brassy “American” sound, is pretty well known, and Pickett broke it up more often, again bopping out rhythms and talking the music.
After another hour, the orchestra spent about 45 minutes working on the concert-closer, the exhilaratingly upbeat suite from On the Town, including, especially, the lovely "Lonely Town," with a clarinet trio to die for, and of course the jazzy, sexy, totally swinging "New York, New York." Even after three Friday-evening hours, the players and the conductor were all grins. Who wouldn’t be?