Tobias Picker (born July 18, 1954) is an American composer who writes in a range of genres: orchestral, opera and chamber works. He has received numerous commissions, especially for operas, and in 2010 composed his first ballet on commission.
Picker was born in New York City. He began composing at the age of eight and his parents arranged for him to study at the Manhattan School of Music, and The Juilliard School. He attended college at Princeton University. His principal teachers were Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. Picker received his first commissions while still in his late teens and quickly became established as one of the United States' most sought-after young composers.
By the age of thirty, Picker had earned numerous awards and honors, including the Joseph H. Bearns Prize (Columbia University), a Charles Ives Scholarship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1992, he received the prestigious Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. From 1985–1990 Picker was the first composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony. He has also served as composer-in-residence for such major international festivals as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Pacific Music Festival. Tobias Picker was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May 2012.
Picker’s symphonic music, including the tone poem Old and Lost Rivers, has been performed by major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, The Munich Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. His piano concerto Keys to the City (written for the Centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge) is recorded on Chandos with his cello concerto and the orchestral work And Suddenly It’s Evening. Following this Chandos release, BBC Music Magazine proclaimed Picker’s recent music “one of the glories of the current musical scene.”
The Encantadas (for narrator and orchestra) features texts drawn from Herman Melville’s descriptions of the Galápagos Islands. It was recorded on Virgin Classics by the Houston Symphony Orchestra with narration by Sir John Gielgud.
Other works include Tres sonetos de amor, settings of Neruda love poems in versions for baritone and orchestra, and voice and piano; and The Blue Hula, a work for chamber ensemble. Picker’s complete orchestral catalogue includes three symphonies, four piano concertos and concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe.
Picker has also composed numerous chamber works. In 2009, the American String Quartet commissioned and premiered his String Quartet No. 2 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. In that same year, the pianist Ursula Oppens premiered Picker's Four Etudes for Ursula and Three Nocturnes for Ursula at Baisly Powell Elebash Recital Hall, also in New York. In 2011, Picker was featured in a Miller Theatre Composer Portrait Concert, featuring the Signal Ensemble, Sarah Rothenberg, and the Brentano String Quartet, who premiered his Piano Quintet "Live Oaks".
- Emmeline (1996): The Santa Fe Opera commissioned and produced the world premiere of Picker’s first opera, which was subsequently broadcast nationally on the PBS Great Performances series. The premiere recording was released on CD by Albany Records.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998): His second opera was an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Opera. Picker has written two more versions of this work: a version for Chamber Ensemble of seven instruments was premiered by Opera Holland Park in 2010. A version with reduced orchestration was written for the English Touring Opera, also in 2010.
- Thérèse Raquin (1999/2000): Picker's third opera (libretto by Gene Scheer) was commissioned by a consortium of companies, including The Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, and the Opéra de Montréal. Picker eceived a new commission from Opera Theatre Europe for a reduced-scale version of Thérèse Raquin, which was performed in March 2006 at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
- An American Tragedy (2005/2006): Based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, Picker's fourth opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. The world premiere took place on December 2, 2005 and featured Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick in principal roles. The production was directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by James Conlon.
- Dolores Claiborne: On 18 September 2013, the San Francisco Opera premiered a new opera by Picker with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, based on Stephen King's novel of the same name.
Picker composed his first ballet, Awakenings (2010), inspired by the novel by Dr. Oliver Sacks and commissioned by the Rambert Dance Company. The piece was premiered by Rambert in Salford, UK in September 2010. Rambert toured the work around the UK with over 50 performances in the 2010-11 season.
- Invisible Lilacs (Tzadik Records, 2014)
- Keys to the City (Wergo, 2008)
- Old and Lost Rivers (Virgin Classics)
- Songs and Encores (Bridge Records, 2006)
- Symphony No. 2, String Quartet No. 1 (First Edition, 2004)
- Keys to the City, And Suddenly It's Evening, and Cello Concerto (Chandos, 2003)
- Thérèse Raquin (Chandos, 2001)
- Emmeline (Albany Records, 1998)
- The Encantadas (Virgin Records, 1998)
Additional recordings of the composer’s music are available on Sony Classics, Virgin, Nonesuch Records, Ondine, Bridge and First Edition, among others.
Picker has been diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome. He has mentioned that there are "tourettic" elements to his music. He appeared in a BBC Horizon television documentary, titled Mad But Glad, about the link between Tourette's syndrome and creativity. He has been involved in mentoring programs for children with Tourette's.
Picker has various tics which disappear when he's composing, playing the piano, or conducting. He has said, "I live my life controlled by Tourette's...but I use music to control it. I have harnessed its energy—I play with it, manipulate it, trick it, mimic it, taunt it, explore it, exploit it, in every possible way."
Picker was an acquaintance of neurologist Oliver Sacks. According to Sacks, Picker related that he found his "problem" in his life was "congenital musicality" rather than Tourette's. Picker began to play the piano at age four, and by age seven found he could reproduce large passages of music. He "found himself overwhelmed by musical emotion." As related by Sacks, "He said that it was understood, practically from the start, that he would be a musician, and that he had little chance of doing anything else, because his musicality was all-consuming...he sometimes felt that his musicality controlled him, rather than the other way around."
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- "Commissions & Premieres". American String Quartet. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
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- "Nine Rivers - Part I: Leukosis". Millertheatre.com. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "Investec Opera Holland Park LondonInvestec Opera Holland Park". Rbkc.gov.uk. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "Fantastic Mr Fox: composer meets conductor". English Touring Opera. 2010-11-15. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "An American Tragedy – Theopera – An American Tragedy – Theopera". Anamericantragedy-theopera.org. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
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- "Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy". The Rest Is Noise. 2005-12-26. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- Johnson, Lawrence A. (2012-01-18). "San Francisco Opera to present three American world premieres in 2013". The Classical Review. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "Rambert Dance Company: The Making of Awakenings". The Ballet Bag. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "Horizon - Mad But Glad". BBC. 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "TSANJ PARTNERS WITH RUTGERS ON TOURETTE SYNDROME CLINIC" (PDF). Tsanj.org. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "Legislators Split Over Funding for Iraq, Afghanistan - News –". Forward.com. 2003-10-24. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, revised and expanded (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 252. ISBN 978-0-676-97979-4
- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, revised and expanded (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 99. ISBN 978-0-676-97979-4