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Juneau's symphony is having a whale of a time

Posted: January 13, 2012 - 12:08am
Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at their luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at their luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.

The largest symphony in Southeast Alaska is blossoming under the direction of Conductor and Music Director Kyle Wylie Pickett.

Since Pickett took the baton in 2000, the Juneau Symphony Orchestra has grown up a lot.

On the eve of its 50th anniversary, the orchestra’s funding has more than tripled from about $70,000 to nearly $250,000 annually, he told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during its weekly meeting at the Juneau Moose Lodge. Pickett has recruited new musicians from Alaska’s talent pool and added several new musical performances. All this in a time when many of the nation’s symphonys and philharmonics are going bankrupt or closing their doors for good. Arts for Americans estimated that up to 50 percent of arts groups my go under due to the current economy.

Juneau’s symphony is fiscally sound — as traditional support dwindles, individuals are stepping up.

“So it is a good time for Juneau,” Pickett said. “And despite the climate, we have been able to continue to grow and continued to provide interesting and new and varied programing for our community.”

“We are what you would call a community and semi-professional orchestra that is of, by and for the citizens of Juneau,” Pickett said. “Our players are primarily local residents, so when you go to the orchestra you are looking at your friends and your neighbors up there on stage, who are dedicating their time, their energy, their skills, their talents, in order to provide something beautiful and cultural.”

More than 80 semi-professional and volunteer musicians now perform for the orchestra, many of whom hold advanced degrees in music performance. Most live in Juneau or around Southeast. However, the orchestra is always looking for more musicians for its string section, Pickett said.

With performances that span many genres, from “Sweeny Todd” for Halloween to whale songs to “Doctor Noize Goes Bananas” for family fun, Pickett said he works hard to bring variety and quality to Juneau’s symphony-goers. He also brings to Juneau concert standards such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and the newer works of Hindemith, Holst and Mahler.

“I hope that no one in the community looks at the symphony as the broccoli that you ought to eat,” Pickett said. He said he doesn’t want people to think “’I should go to the symphony because I need a little culture,’” he said. 

Pickett said he sees the symphony increasing Juneau’s civic pride and as a value for businesses looking to lure new employees to Southeast Alaska.

Cliff Berge founded the symphony in 1962 as a volunteer community orchestra.

Pickett said that youth who pick up and attempt to play an instrument, even if for a few weeks or months, are more likely to attend a symphony in later life. Youth that practice an instrument also perform better in math, English and social sciences. It is for these reasons and more Pickett said the symphony hosts several youth-oriented events — an annual concert for Juneau’s fourth and fifth grade students, a student symphony and family-friendly performances, like the upcoming “Doctor Noize Goes Bananas,” slated for Jan. 20.

During his tenure the young conductor has overseen an increase in the complement of the orchestra, tripled the budget, established the Juneau Symphony Chorus and an annual summer pops concert that has featured dance, movie, show tunes and light classics. He also started a pre-concert “Conversation with the Conductor” series.

In his bio, Pickett is said to be “recognized as one of America’s most exciting and charismatic young conductors as well as an acclaimed orchestra builder.”

Juneau is not Pickett’s only conducting gig. He is also the conductor for the North State Symphony in northern California — a professional traveling symphony he built from the Redding and Chico symphony orchestras. He recently led the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra in holiday performances of “The Nutcracker” with The Montana Ballet Company. And he is a guest conductor for the Rogue Valley Symphony in Southern Oregon and the Santa Rosa Symphony Pops.

Pickett earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Stanford University and a master’s degree in choral conducting from the California State University at Chico. He has a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in orchestral conducting from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Pickett is also an accomplished flautist and is trained in voice. He lives in Lake California, Calif. with his wife, two sons and their dachshund Max.

As part of the University of Alaska Southeast’s Sound and Motion lecture series, Pickett will present his lecture “Aleatoricism, Post-Modernism, and Whale Songs?” at 7 p.m. today in the Egan Lecture Hall. Aleatoricism is creating art by randomness and chance. The lecture discusses the symphony’s upcoming performance of Alan Hovhaness’ “And God Created Great Whales.” The performances, which take place Jan. 21 and 22, “combines orchestra and whale songs as well as similar techniques in 20th century orchestral music,” according to the symphony’s website.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at

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