Ron Maas has fond memories of the early days of the Juneau Symphony. And along with trombonist Dick Garrison, trumpeter Maas is one of the only Juneau residents who can tell the organization’s story from the very beginning.
It was 1962 when a group of local musicians got together to talk about the possibility of forming an orchestra. Maas was there, as was Garrison and more recent arrivals to town Cliff Berge and his wife Gladys.
“Cliff was a very accomplished violinist and his wife was a very accomplished pianist,” Maas recalled. “We had a meeting and decided that we had enough musicians in town that we could accomplish a little something. And so we started out with 22 and gave our first concert at Gross Alaska Theaters, as a matter of fact, in 1963.”
The original symphony gave a couple concerts a year, Maas said, and then traveled a bit to other Southeast communities.
“A little later on we turned down to Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan,” he said. “It was nice, very nice.”
Maas, 85, played with the symphony for many years before moving on to head up the Thunder Mountain Big Band. Though he no longer plays with them, the symphony is still a big part of his life, in part because his wife, Kathy, is a longtime symphony violinist. In fact, the couple met at a symphony rehearsal in 1972.
“That was the highlight of my career,” Maas said with a chuckle.
Now celebrating its 50th season, the Juneau Symphony has come a long way from its early days at the 20th Century Twin to become one of the main anchors of the Juneau arts community. Maas said he’s seen real change over the past 10 years in particular, since the arrival of current conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett in 2000.
“It just jumped ahead in talent many, many degrees (after he arrived),” Maas said.
Pickett is only the second official conductor and musical director the symphony has had in its 50 year history. The first was Melvin Flood, who wielded the baton from 1983 through 1998. Before Flood, the symphony was led by a rotating group of volunteers that included Berge, Lawton Hull, Jane Stewart, George Hoyt and Bernie Hendricks.
Though it lacked a regular musical director in its early years, the symphony’s musicians were accomplished enough to attract Flood’s interest — and praise — in 1982 when he came up to apply for the position.
“I knew it was a small group but I was greatly encouraged by the way they performed.” Flood said in a Juneau Empire article in 1983. “It is rare for a city this size to have a quality symphony — a symphony at all for that matter. This is very rare indeed.”
Flood’s words were recently echoed by current musical director and conductor Pickett, who felt similarly about the uniqueness of the community when he arrived at age 27 in 1999 for a month-long interview.
“Ten years ago there wasn’t nearly as much going on as there is now, I don’t think, but I still felt like the support level in this community was astonishing for a town this size,” he said.
Pickett also saw the potential for the symphony to expand and flourish within that atmosphere of support.
“When I took over it was really an organization that was poised to grow, ready to grow.”
The musicians themselves were also ready for more, Pickett thought, and so the first chance he got, he gave them something to work with. Part of the application process for the position of musical director involved conducting an actual public concert. Because the final decision about whom to hire was to be determined by a vote from the active symphony musicians at the time, engaging them was crucial for Pickett’s success. He chose an ambitious program that included Beethoven’s Fifth — and the musicians responded.
In a 1999 article announcing Pickett’s hire, symphony violinist and search committee member Bob King describes Pickett’s trial concert.
“(Pickett) put on a tremendous performance of the Beethoven when he was here. He was able to get more out of the symphony than even the players thought they could do,” King said in the article.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Maas this week.
“My wife thinks a lot of the music is very difficult but (Pickett) always pulls it out. He’s just a wonderful guy, a wonderful conductor,” Maas said.
Hitting the balance between music that is artistically challenging for his musicians and satisfying for his audience is one Pickett works at constantly. In determining his programming, he tries to avoid choosing pieces he thinks the audience “needs” to hear, focusing instead on those he finds interesting, or provocative, or fun.
“I’m really opposed to the broccoli theory of classical music,” Pickett said. “I don’t give people something because I think ‘This is going to be good for you.’”
This weekend, for the symphony’s fall concert, he’s planned a very strong program that includes Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” the “Candide Overture” by Leonard Bernstein and Brahms’ “Violin Concerto,” featuring Russian-American soloist Yevgeny Kutik.
Pickett said getting ready for rehearsals, he was a little nervous about the challenging nature of what he’d set out.
“I thought, ‘What was I thinking? This is nuts! This is a huge concert!’ and I got up here and the orchestra’s in great shape. It’s going to be terrific concert.”
Before Pickett’s arrival, the musicians are led in rehearsal by resident conductor William Todd Hunt, who is also artistic director for Opera to Go. Symphony musicians also work on the pieces on their own at home, and in specific groups. The Juneau Symphony is a community orchestra, which means the musicians are all volunteers, but Pickett, who is also the conductor of the North State Symphony in Northern California, a professional symphony, said the two organizations operate very similarly.
“It’s not unusual to find a community orchestra, you find community orchestras everywhere,” Pickett said. “What is unusual is a community orchestra that operates very professionally. We run like a professional orchestra, we run the same way as my other orchestra.”
Pickett said a high level of professionalism was a goal for him from the very beginning.
“I think in the days of Mel (Flood), and the players have told me this, it was more of a social activity, people would get together and they’d learn the music together. And now our goal is to put on great concerts.”
Flood, Pickett’s predecessor, had an enormous influence on the symphony, directing the group from 1983 through 1998. A flutist, Flood was a very active member of the music community in other ways as well, working as assistant professor of music at UAS (then UAJ), directing choral groups including the University Singers and the choir of resurrection Lutheran Church, directing operas and musicals for JLO and Perseverance, and giving private instruction.
Upon his departure from town in June 1998, then-symphony board member Nancy DeCherney commented, “When you think of music in Juneau, you think of Mel Flood.”
Another lasting influence Flood had on the town was his founding of the Mel Flood Big Band in 1984, which now exists as the Thunder Mountain big Band, headed by Maas.
After Flood left Juneau for Ohio in 1998, the symphony was again leaderless for a couple years, while a search committee took on the difficult task of finding a new music director. Pickett was hired in 1999, and is still going strong. The organization has tripled its budget since his arrival, and is in a pretty healthy place financially, with ticket sales accounting for about 30 percent of their income — within the ideal range.
“In the symphony world, you’re considered to be really healthy if you’re between 25 and 35 percent.” Pickett said.
Individual donations have also really helped a lot in recent years, Pickett said, as donations from big business have dropped off.
The support of the community is reflected in the dedication of the musicians. Pickett estimates about 2,500 people hours go in to preparing for each concert — and that doesn’t include individual practice time or any of the organizational aspects of the symphony.
“The people who do it do it for sheer love of what they’re doing, they’re not doing it for the money, they’re not doing it because it's their career. And so there’s an enthusiasm that really never wanes. That’s kind of amazing. In 11 years, I’d say we haven’t had a single concert that I wasn’t happy with. It’s in large part because the musicians are so dedicated to doing what they’re doing.”
At this point in time, the symphony is at the end of a three-year plan that includes the current 50th anniversary season, and it’s time to make a new one. In terms of continued growth, Pickett said the organization can’t grow much more within current parameters.
“Right now we’re doing about what we can do. We’ve polled the players and said ‘Do you want to do another concert? Do you want to do less?’ And they all say this is kind of what their life allows.”
The Juneau Symphony currently performs four main-stage concerts a year. This season’s concerts include works by Copland and Bruch, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, featuring the Juneau Symphony Chorus.
This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary celebration, they have expanded from one to four chamber music concerts and a gourmet food series, as well as a family concert.
Providing educational opportunities is one of three concurrent missions of the symphony, Pickett said, along with providing high-quality symphonic music for the community and giving local musicians a platform to perform.
Juneau musician Rick Trostel has been an invaluable resource in helping the symphony to fulfill the educational mission, Pickett said. It was Trostel who came up with the idea to make the Juneau Youth Symphony into the Juneau Student Symphony, an all-ages training ground focused on developing musicianship.
“When Rick Trostel took over, he decided to make it into the Student Symphony, which I think was a brilliant idea, one of the best ideas that I’ve heard for youth symphonies. It’s something that really has made this group thrive because there are adult beginners who wouldn’t have felt comfortable in a youth symphony, but in a student symphony they’re really excited to be there.”
The JSS performs three concerts a year. Other youth programs include the children’s concert, the Youth Solo Competition, a concerto competition open to all young musicians in Southeast Alaska, and the Music in the Schools program, an annual school assembly concert for fourth- and fifth-grade students. One of the primary indicators of eventual symphony attendance is exposure to symphonic music in youth, Pickett said, so in reaching out to youth the symphony is also securing its fans for the future.
Pickett said though he thinks a lot about attracting new (and younger) audience members, he isn’t tempted by gimmicky applications of symphonic style — such as orchestral renditions of Pink Floyd albums (something he saw in California). Rather, he focuses on highlighting what the symphony does best — orchestral music — in interesting ways.
“I think the question is not how to keep the symphony current, because I think the symphony is current, it is a living organization. I think the question is how to keep the symphony connected to the community, that’s the bigger question. And we do that in a variety of ways.”
One of the interesting things he’s planned for this season is a Motown concert featuring the group Spectrum — Motown is essentially symphonic music, he said. Also a bit different -- but symphonic -- was last season’s huge musical theater production of Sweeney Todd, a great success.
It’s clear in talking to Pickett that he’s got lots of ideas for the future, and the passion and energy to make them happen.
“I feel like at this point I haven’t overstayed my welcome. The players still seem to want to work with me, the audience still seems to respond. I love this community and I think there’s more for us to do. If I got to the point where I felt like we’ve done everything that we could do then it’s probably time for someone else to step in, but I feel like there still is more. This group keeps surprising me with what they’re capable of.”
For more, visit www.juneausymphony.org.