A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2014 Issue

A Season of Discovery

musical notes

North State Symphony seeks new conductor

When CSU, Chico announced in 2013 that it was looking for a new musical director for the North State Symphony (NSS), 43 candidates from around the world applied to the organization. What began in 1905 as the Chico State Normal School Orchestra is now a university-affiliated orchestra with professional musicians offering a four-concert season with holiday and other events to the residents of Northern California.

The symphony also has close ties to CSU, Chico’s academic mission through its student musicians. “As a student in the NSS, I get the amazing opportunity to play alongside such talented musicians, and to play in such a professional environment,” says Eric Bolstad, music major and trombonist. “This is the type of experience that really prepares you to be able to go out and play professionally after graduation.” Over the course of a season, the NSS includes at least 10 CSU, Chico students and several faculty members onstage.

Robert Knight, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA), arrived in Chico in 2013 just as NSS conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett announced plans to leave the area to lead two orchestras in Kansas and Missouri. Knight became an enthusiastic supporter of the NSS and was impressed by the commitment of the Redding League, the Chico Guild, the board, and concertgoers. “The response to our call for applicants has been gratifying,” he says, “and it’s a tribute to the orchestra that Kyle helped build. I am looking forward to the selection of the new conductor and a robust new season to continue the growth of the NSS.”

Back in the late 1990s, it was just a wild idea to create an orchestra to unite the North State region. James Bankhead, former chair of the music department at CSU, Chico, recalls conversations with Chico Symphony conductor David Colson and HFA Dean Donald Heinz about the dream of a symphony that would play in both Redding and Chico, and perhaps in other venues in the North State.

As with most dreams, the vision required some negotiation with stakeholders. The Chico Symphony had a nearly 100-year legacy, while the Redding Symphony had recently discontinued its season. But Gene Nichols, board chair in Redding, was an early and enthusiastic believer. Others joined in as the word got around.

Kyle Wiley Pickett conducts his final performance with the North State Symphony in May 2014. Pickett introduced his audiences to many accessible and exciting new works for the orchestral repertoire.

Kyle Wiley Pickett conducts his final performance with the North State Symphony in May 2014. Pickett introduced his audiences to many accessible and exciting new works for the orchestral repertoire.

“The North State Symphony is a great example of two communities and a local university pulling together to form a really outstanding organization,” says Bankhead. “Maestro Pickett’s artistic leadership and dedication to the entire region was an essential ingredient, along with committed board members from both cities and administrators at Chico State who believed that the region is an integral part of the University. I have used this example many times to show the critical role a university can play in the artistic, social, and economic life of a community.”

Since 2001, the North State Symphony has made a name for itself in two concert halls, the Cascade Theatre in Redding and Laxson Auditorium in Chico. Guest artists have joined students and professional players from California and Oregon to provide the region with inventive programming, old favorites, and new works.

With a thriving and supportive fan base for the NSS, the University launched a search for Pickett’s successor. Associate HFA dean Joe Alexander developed a plan for recruitment and a selection committee including musicians, faculty and staff, community members from Redding and Chico, and board members. 

“The applications began coming in, and we had a great field to choose from,” says Alexander. “The range of talent was extraordinary, and the committee was impressed and daunted at the same time. We had applications from Europe, South America, and many states.”

With all this talent to choose from, the question became, “How best to proceed?”

The League of American Orchestras provided guidelines for selecting a new conductor, which were only slightly complicated by the unusual configuration of the North State Symphony. As an academic program in the Department of Music and Theatre with administrative oversight provided by the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, NSS is advised by two community boards that do the heavy lifting in fund-raising. The new conductor will not only conduct and champion the symphony but also hold a faculty position at CSU, Chico and teach courses.

The selection process included video performances of all the candidates; phone interviews and programming ideas from semifinalists; and then selection of the final four for tryouts with the NSS (see sidebar to the right). Each finalist takes part in a 10-day residency in Chico and Redding to conduct rehearsals, do interviews and presentations on campus and in the community, attend social events, and meet with faculty.

Alexander worked with the Office of Institutional Research to devise a system of feedback for everyone, including season-ticket buyers and concertgoers who interact with the finalists. In addition, all orchestra musicians are invited to respond to each candidate. Music major Eric Bolstad is grateful to be part of the process: “Being able to see firsthand the conductors and to take part in much of the process is a unique experience.”

Alexander will compile the data and work with the committee after each concert so the final decision can be made in May 2015. All of the information will be forwarded to Dean Knight, who will then make a recommendation to the provost.  

Stay tuned!

About the author

Brooks Thorlaksson (MA, English, ’78) retired as associate dean of the CSU, Chico College of Humanities and Fine Arts in 2012. She accompanied the Chico State Choir on the Eastern European tour led by Professor Sharon Paul.

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The Four Maestros

Christian BaldiniChristian Baldini is a conductor, composer, and current music director at the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra and Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. He has conducted several international ensembles, including the Acanthes Festival in France, and has presented more than 70 world premieres.

Brian StoneBrian Stone
is a conductor with experience in concert and opera pits across the United States and Europe. He was director of the University of Delaware Orchestras for 10 years, where he developed three ensembles that doubled enrollments, tripled performances, and quadrupled attendance.  

 Scott SeatonScott Seaton
is music director of the Minot Symphony Orchestra and assistant conductor for the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, California. He has conducted orchestras throughout the country and has competed in several international competitions. Most recently, he placed among the top 10 conductors at the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition.

Peter JaffePeter Jaffe
is music director of the Stockton Symphony and Folsom Symphony, as well as a longtime conductor at the Aspen Music Festival. He has conducted orchestras throughout the country and has recently won recognition for using symphonic music to engage in crucial social issues.

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Calling All Symphony Alums

When did you play in the orchestra (North State Symphony or Chico Symphony)?  What instrument? And what are you doing now? We would love to hear from our alums; send us an update to symphony@csuchico.edu.

Free North State Symphony tickets will go to the first 10 people who reply! Choose the Chico or Redding concert date you can attend.


For more detailed information about each of the finalists, please see www.NorthStateSymphony.org.