World premiere event

Orchestra brings Dan Pinkston’s remarkable Symphony No. 1 to life

Violin Soloist William Barbini

Violin Soloist William Barbini

photo by Matt Siracusa

North State Symphony: Aspects of Enchantment, Saturday, Nov. 13, Laxson Auditorium.

It’s not every day that Chico hosts the world premiere of a symphony, so the North State Symphony’s performance of Dan Pinkston’s Symphony No. 1 in Laxson Auditorium last Saturday (Nov. 13) was an extraordinary event well before the music started.

A symphony is a hugely complex composition, and performing one for the very first time is inherently risky. There’s no way to know beforehand how it’s going to come out. What if, during rehearsal, the musicians discover they don’t enjoy playing it? Or the audience doesn’t like it?

Conductor Kyle Wylie Pickett addressed these issues during a pre-performance lecture in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall, across the street from Laxson. He said one of the things he was looking for during rehearsals was whether the musicians were enjoying playing the symphony. He knew if they were having fun, the audience probably would, too.

And, sure enough, the players were having a great time with the piece. They said it sounded a lot like music written for a movie.

That was fine by Pinkston, who was in town for the premiere and joined Pickett at the lecture. “I have no problem with people thinking that,” he said, adding however that he saw it the other way around: “To me, film music sounds like symphonic music.”

Pinkston, who is 38 and teaches at Simpson University in Redding, acknowledged that his new work “bore the weight of previous composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler” and, most of all, Shostakovich. He spent a year listening to the Russian’s symphonies to glean ideas for his own, he said.

I’m not very familiar with Shostakovich, but I did hear a lot of Mahler in Pinkston’s symphony, particularly in its use of isolated percussion elements, like chimes, xylophones and even what sounded like a castanet, offsetting the larger orchestral passages.

Unlike the great Romantic symphonies, the Pinkston symphony has no external story—no “Pastoral” it’s trying to depict, no “Eroica” it’s trying to summon. It is, to use Pickett’s phrase, “absolute music” whose only “story” is internal: How will the opening motives find form in later movements? How will the clash between tonality and dissonance resolve itself in the end?

As such, it’s filled with fresh, interesting and even surprising sounds. Nearly every instrument group is given an expressive solo, several individual instruments (a piccolo!) have delightful solos, and the percussion section is kept hopping through much of the piece. Saturday night, the musicians were terrific all the way through, sounding as if they’d played the piece dozens of times—and enjoyed it every time.

The opening selection, Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and two incidental pieces written for the play, was delightful. As Pickett said, the Overture, written when the composer was just 17 years old, is probably the most mature and satisfying piece ever written by a minor—better than anything done by Mozart.

It was followed by the Pinkston symphony and, after intermission, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, with Sacramento-based violinist William Barbini doing the honors.

The piece was originally commissioned for Barber’s friend, the violinist Iso Briselli. Briselli loved the first two movements but rejected the third, saying it didn’t fit with the rest of the piece and was unplayable.

The first two movements are beautifully melodic, full of rich tones and a resonant interplay between violin and orchestra, but the third movement is altogether different—an almost frantic “perpetual motion,” as Barber characterized it, in which the violinist and orchestra seem to race to see which can outperform the other in blazing virtuosity.

Barbini was brilliant, and the audience applauded heartily when he was done, but I found myself agreeing with Briselli that the piece ended oddly. Perhaps the Pinkston symphony had spoiled me.