Who we are: Born to conduct

Juneau Symphony's artistic director splits time between Alaska, California

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2007

Kyle Wiley Pickett had decades of formal music education and training before he became artistic director of the Juneau Symphony.

But it was something innate that drove him to conducting.

"You learn how to study the score," he said. "You learn how to wave your arms and do the patterns. You can learn how to deal with people, how to inspire and how to run a rehearsal. But fundamentally, you just have to have talent, musical sense ... something to say about the music."

In seven years as artistic director of the Juneau Symphony, Pickett has produced music for thousands of Juneau and Southeast residents. This weekend, he helped lead Spring performances at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. About 600 people attended the weekend's concerts for a mix of Poulenc, Mozart and Schumann.

"I enjoy being able to expose the kids to this music," said Kim Carlile, who volunteered with her 14-year-old Katlyn and 11-year-old Bethany. "It was beautiful."

Pickett brings a wealth of knowledge about music and musicology to the musicians, French horn player Bill Paulick said. He rated Pickett among the best of the dozens of conductors he has performed with.

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"His beats are clear," Paulick said. "His body English is great. You learn what he wants and when he wants it."

Pickett, 35, started his position in 2000. He was picked out of a group of guest conductors who had been interviewed by board members and voted for by performers.

He stumbled upon the opportunity while checking job-postings with the conductors' guild. He had just finished his doctorate from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and was applying to as many jobs as he could find.

"I said, 'Juneau, Alaska. Should I apply there?' And my wife said, 'Of course.'"

Now he and his wife, Alice, their 9-month-old son Ned, and their dachshund, Max, split their time between Juneau and California. It means a lot of traveling and house-sitting for the family, opportunities to meet different people and experience living in different parts of Juneau. It also means living out of a suitcase at times.

He had a good first impression as a guest conductor in the late 1990s, hiking Mount Roberts, cross-country skiing in sunny weather, fishing, enjoying the folk festival.

"We fell in love with the community and the people," he said.

In California, he conducts the North State Symphony, an orchestra drawing on a three-city area of Chico, Redding and Red Bluff. His wife directs a children's theater, though she is taking time off this year to take care of Ned. Pickett deals with a hectic schedule. He's planning on flying back to California this morning. Tonight, he will be at another rehearsal.

The son of a music teacher, Pickett grew up playing flute in California. He received a bachelor's degree in music from Stanford University, where he abandoned political science and the prospects of law school to immerse himself in music. Then he received a master's degree in choral conducting from California State University at Chico, where he is on the faculty of the music department. He received his doctorate in music in 1998, coming to Juneau soon thereafter.

He conducts an orchestra that is now in its 45th year of existence. It relies on about 80 semi-professional and volunteer musicians, with at least one bassoonist traveling from as far as Anchorage.

Performers such as Sharon Denton, a soprano, consider themselves fortunate to be part of the organization. They said they learn a lot about music through Pickett's direction.

"He is extremely positive in his conducting," Denton said. "He demonstrates what he wants from the singers. What kind of sound he wants. It's pretty amazing for a town of this size to have a symphony and chorus that's producing the sounds it is producing."

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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