Music you've never heard

A new concerto, a popular symphony and an insect-themed overture head up symphony's program

Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010

When Juneau Symphony Music Director Kyle Wiley Pickett selects pieces for the orchestra to perform, he's guided in part by what he does not wish to elicit from the diverse crowd: boredom.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I hate to be bored," he said. "I really hate going to a concert or a play and being bored. I'd rather have someone say 'I don't like that' than say, 'Eh, who cares?'"

The challenge of not just engaging but delighting his listeners is one that the ebullient Pickett embraces with gusto, and he is confident that the program for this weekend's winter concert, Bold and Beautiful, will not disappoint.

"I pretty much guarantee that nobody is going to leave this concert unhappy with what they've heard," he said.

One of the reasons for his confidence is Lowell Liebermann's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op. 110. Commissioned by a group of 14 different orchestras and organizations, including the Juneau Symphony, the piece debuted in November 2009 and has been performed twice, in Ohio and in Virginia; the Juneau audience will be only the third to hear it.

And as if that's not intriguing enough, Pickett has called it "the best piece of new music I have ever heard." From a man who has led two orchestras for more than 10 years (he is also current music director for the North State Symphony in northern California), this is high praise.

Part of what he loves, he said, is the balance between technical interest and melodic appeal, making it fun and challenging for the musicians as well as accessible for the audience.

"It is fantastic. What I like about it is it's really original - it doesn't sound derivative, it doesn't sound like any other piece that you've heard - but it's kind of instantly familiar," Pickett said. "It's creative and stretches your ears, but it's melodic and rhythmically exciting and fun."

The rhythmic aspect is played out in a wide variety of percussive instruments, which, according to the composer's description of the piece, include a bass drum, tam-tam, ratchet, woodblock, cowbell, jawbone, maracas, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, gourd, tambourine, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone. Other instruments include harp and celesta, as well as traditional string and wind instruments.

The Juneau orchestra will be joined on-stage by the clarinet player for whom the piece was written, guest soloist Jon Manasse of New York, who met Liebermann while both were students at Juilliard.

"If he's not the greatest clarinet (player) playing right now, he's certainly one of them," Pickett said.

Because the commissioned work was something he'd never heard before, Pickett chose two more familiar pieces to round out the winter program: Antonin Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 and Vaughan Williams' "The Wasps" Overture. Like the concerto, these two selections are also very melodic and accessible, Pickett said.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, which begins with a cello melody, is one of Dvorák's best-known works. Written in 1889, it incorporates folk melodies indicative of the Czech-born composer's Bohemian roots.

Pickett said that one of the positive things about selecting pieces for Juneau audiences is that he can bring in something familiar, like the Dvorák, which an avid New York symphony goer could probably hear performed several times a year, and know that it will be fresh to Juneau ears.

"To a certain extent, when we're playing a piece like this its still pretty new to the community, at least the experience of hearing it live."

The third piece, Williams' Overture, was written in 1909 to accompany a performance of Aristophanes' comedy "The Wasps;" the title creatures can be heard buzzing through the music. Interested listeners can hear a sample of the overture on the symphony's Web site, This piece will be led by resident conductor William Todd Hunt.

Pickett described the overture as being "very upbeat."

Though all the pieces share an optimistic tone, they represent a wide range of styles, a variety that Pickett feels is very important in maintaining the symphony's broad appeal. Juneau's audience is more diverse than most, he said - guys in Carhartts sitting next to others in tuxedos - and engaging them all is one of his top goals.

"First and foremost, I think about how the audience is going to enjoy a concert," he said, adding that this may be the most accessible and enjoyable show of the year.

To find out more about the winter program, show up one hour prior to performance time for Pickett's Concert Conversations.

• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at

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