The synergy between conductor Kyle Wylie Pickett and the Juneau Symphony was evident from the first time he raised a baton to lead them. Fresh from graduate school, at age 27, Pickett arrived in Juneau in April 1999 as one of four finalists for the position of symphony conductor. He chose an ambitious program — Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italian” and Brahms’ “Academic Festival” — one he admits was too difficult for the symphony at that time. But they rose to the challenge and pulled it off, setting a pattern that would define their process for the next 14 years.
“That was what was great about it,” Pickett said. “It was too difficult, but we made it. We had the first ‘Juneau Symphony miracle.’”
That “miracle” consistently repeated itself over the next 14 years, with Pickett leading the orchestra into a period of rapid growth that surprised them both and continues to this day.
“It’s been enormously rewarding all the way through,” he said. “I’ve done 58 or 62 concerts over the years — something like that, — and there’s not one of them I’m not proud of.”
Now, after 14 years, he is preparing to lead his final concerts on June 14 and 15, having made an indelible impression on the players and on the arts community he has helped shape.
“We picked the right guy, obviously,” said longtime symphony member Jetta Whittaker. “There was never a negative word. He was always positive, every single time.”
Pickett is leaving his two orchestras – the Juneau Symphony and the North State Symphony in California – and taking up two new ones – the Springfield Symphony in Missouri and the Topeka Symphony in Kansas. For the past few months, he’s been doing all four at once, on top of relocating with his wife and two sons from California to Kansas. In spite of his exhaustion, he’s excited about what’s next and said the time had come for a change.
“I have been extremely happy, with both the Juneau and the North State Symphony,” he said. “It’s been wonderful. But I’ve been doing it since 2000. That’s 14 years.”
Not only is it time for him to do something else, he said, it’s also time for the symphony to benefit from another leader with a different style, strengths and chemistry.
“For the last 14 years, the Juneau Symphony and Kyle Pickett have been inseparable in people’s minds .... You become so personally associated with the orchestra, people sort of feel like. ‘What’s going to happen when you go?’ And the truth is, it’s going to be great, it will go on, and that’s a happy thing for me. It’s a positive step forward. And the orchestra will grow from this.”
Conductor jobs don’t come up that often, and when they do, the selection process is complex and laborious.
“I’ve been applying for jobs for a number of years,” Pickett said. “You just cannot predict the ebb and flow of a career in conducting. You can’t predict how searches go, why you get noticed, why you don’t get noticed.”
The switch to Topeka and Springfield will bring new challenges. Both are professional, paid orchestras, and together they put on double the amount of performances Pickett has been leading with Juneau and North State.
Pickett was the Juneau Symphony’s second official conductor and musical director after Melvin Flood, who was in charge from 1983 through 1998. He said he arrived at a time when the volunteer community orchestra was poised to take its music to the next level, and changes came quickly within the very first season.
“We laid out a five-year plan of everything we wanted to accomplish and we did it in the first year or year and a half. We knocked them all out.”
When he was hired, the conventional wisdom was the conductors should stay in their positions for no more than seven years.
“I had been told that seven years was about the life expectancy of a conductor in a community before you really feel like you don’t have impact anymore,” Pickett said. “I have not found that at all to be true ...... With the Juneau Symphony, I’ve done 60 concerts over 14 years and we’ve only repeated a couple things. For the most part we’re still learning new repertoire. With that there’s a constant growth and a constant development.”
Under Pickett’s leadership, the symphony has more than tripled its budget, added a fourth concert to its season and a second concert to each performance, formed the Symphony Chorus and many community collaborations. He also steered them toward huge leaps in their performance abilities. The performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2003 was a milestone, Pickett said.
“That was really an enormous turning point for us,” Pickett said. “In the last 10 years we’ve done some exciting, major concerts. We’ve played Mahler and Shostakovich. We’ve done opera like ‘Carmen’ and ‘Sweeney Todd,’ we’ve done multimedia projects, film projects. Basically between the 40th and 50th anniversary we made a huge leap.”
Whittaker said though Pickett was a demanding conductor, asking the very best from his players, he didn’t get frustrated, or criticise musicians for poor performances. If he heard something amiss, she said, he had a habit of tugging on his ear, perhaps unconsciously.
Pickett said a positive approach to conducting was instilled in him at a young age when, as a member of a prominent youth symphony in California, he was subjected to tirades from the conductor.
“The conductor was a tyrant,” Pickett said. “He was a great musician, an outstanding musician, but he was scary, you got yelled at, you got singled out, and I hate that. It shaped me forever.”
He also had an example from the opposite extreme in renowned conducting teacher Frederik Prausnitz, his instructor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where Pickett received his doctorate in conducting.
“He was very hard on us, but the moment any one of us students would say anything harsh to the orchestra, he would yank us off the podium and he would say, ‘That’s your fault. If the oboe plays wrong, that is your fault.’ ... It comes down to what gets the best out of your players. I definitely think encouragement gets a lot more out of you than fear. You don’t play very well if you’re feeling anxious.”
Pickett said he doesn’t want to weigh in on the symphony’s selection of a new candidate. However, he has been serving as an artistic adviser to the three men, offering feedback as they bring up suggestions.
The three candidates are Wesley Schulz, music director and conductor of Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra in Bainbridge, Wash.; Troy Quinn, music director of the Portsmouth Institute Orchestra in Portsmouth, R.I.; and Jeremy Briggs Roberts, music director and conductor of the Washington Idaho Symphony in Pullman, Wash.
Whoever is chosen, the new conductor will be taking on a group that’s reaped the benefits of Pickett’s longterm leadership — a transformative experience on both sides of the podium.
“I’ll miss it terribly. I’ll miss the players terribly. I’ll miss Juneau. But we’ll come back. There’s no question.”
The Juneau Symphony will host Top Hats and Tails, a farewell dinner for Kyle Wiley Pickett at 7 p.m. Saturday at Glacier Gardens. Tickets are $100 each with tables available for reservation. Evening attire not required. Symphony musicians will perform during the meal.
Pickett's final concerts June 14 and 15 will be a reprise of his first concert as conductor in the fall of 2000. The program includes "Procession of the Nobles," Brahm’s "Piano Concert No. 1" with soloist Tanya Gabrielian and Respighi’s "Pines of Rome."
For more information and tickets, call the Symphony office at 586-4676 or visit www.juneusymphony.org.