Opening the season

A Russian pianist joins the Juneau Symphony as its new conductor debuts

Posted: Thursday, October 05, 2000

The Juneau Symphony launches the new season Saturday with more musicians, a new conductor, a Russian piano soloist and a passionate, sincere concerto.

Johannes Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor" will be the centerpiece of Saturday's concert. The featured soloist, Moscow-born pianist Natalia Bolshakova, said Brahms wrote the concerto in 1854 in response to a friend's suicide attempt.

"It's very sincere," she said. "I think he's transforming something tragic on a human level to something uplifting and spiritual."

Brahms' close friend and mentor, renowned German composer Robert Schumann, was troubled in his later years. One night during the annual carnival festivities, when the streets of Leipzig were filled with revelers, he walked down to the Rhine River and jumped in. He was pulled out by passing fishermen and died two years later in an asylum.

Brahms, a 21-year-old prodigy at the time, began writing his concerto just days later. He worked on it for five years, at times destroying and rewriting entire sections. Bolshakova said the 45-minute piece, twice as long as most concertos, starts out with a passionate storm.

"Then the waters get smooth," she said.

Juneau Symphony Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett said Bolshakova has memorized the entire piece tens of thousands of notes. He said the concerto offers an unusual opportunity for interplay between the soloist and the rest of the symphony.

"The piano and symphony have equal roles," he said. "It's not just the soloist getting the interesting parts, with the symphony as backup. Plus it has one of the most beautiful melodies ever written."

Wiley Pickett and Bolshakova met years ago through a mutual friend and they performed this same Brahms concerto together last October with the Redding Symphony in Redding, Calif. Wiley Pickett said Juneau Symphony violinists Steve Tada and Bob King joined the Redding Symphony for that performance and were strong advocates for bringing Bolshakova to Juneau.

"Bringing in a soloist is so good for the orchestra," he said. "The orchestra plays up to the level of the soloist."

The 27-year-old soloist is teaching and working on her doctoral degree in piano at the University of North Texas in Denton, and travels back and forth between Russia and the United States. She attended music school in Moscow and the Moscow Conservatory before moving to Texas in 1992 to earn her academic degrees in piano performance. She has won numerous American and international piano competitions and performed throughout Russia and the United States.

Bolshakova said she plans on a career teaching and performing. She said she received excellent classical training in Russia, and would like to bring Russian teaching methods to America. She also thinks Russia could benefit from American methods. She hopes to continue to perform internationally. The United States has a better climate for a performing career, but Russian audiences are rewarding because they have tremendous respect for fine arts, she said.

"This summer I went to Russia," Bolshakova said. "The variety of concerts, performances and theater I went to it's incredible. There's always a full house."

Wiley Pickett will discuss the Brahms concerto as well as the other two compositions on Saturday's program in a presentation at 7 p.m., before the concert. The program also includes "Procession of the Nobles" by Rimsky-Korsakov and "The Pines of Rome" by Respighi.

"They're orchestral show pieces," he said. "The 'Procession' is very recognizable and familiar."

Wiley Pickett still conducts the Redding Symphony and teaches music at California State University at Chico. He will be traveling up and down the West Coast this winter, dividing his time between Alaska and California. His conducting activities range from the symphony orchestra to opera to musical theater to choral work. He has directed productions as diverse as Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." He's also an accomplished flutist.

He said the Juneau Symphony is the largest it has been in years, up to about 70 musicians.

"There's an excitement among the musicians," he said.

The concert begins at 8 p.m. in the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets are $14 general admission, $12 for students and seniors in advance at Hearthside Books. Tickets are $2 more at the door. Children's tickets are $5 regardless.

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