Picker was born in New York City. He began composing at the age of eight, and studied at the Juilliard School in his youth; he later attended the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Charles Wuorinen and John Corigliano. He returned to the Juilliard School to earn his Master's in Music, and also pursued further studies at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt. By the age of thirty, Picker had been recognized with numerous awards, including the Joseph H. Bearns Prize (Columbia University), a Charles Ives Scholarship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1992, he received the Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he was later elected to lifetime membership in 2012.
Picker began composing music at an early age, and was quickly commissioned to compose new works, such as "Sextet No. 3", commissioned by Speculum Musicae and premiered at Alice Tully Hall in 1977. In the 1980s, Picker continued to compose instrumental music, and was appointed the first composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony from 1985-1990. Picker has served as composer-in-residence for such major international festivals as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Pacific Music Festival.
Picker composed his first song in 1984; throughout the early 1990s, he continued to compose music for voice. In 1994, Picker composed his first opera, Emmeline, commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Since then, he has written numerous celebrated operas, including Fantastic Mr. Fox, Thérèse Raquin, An American Tragedy, and Dolores Claiborne. In 2010, Picker composed his first ballet, Awakenings, for the Rambert Dance Company, inspired by the work of Oliver Sacks. Picker was appointed artistic director of Tulsa Opera in 2016.
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 received 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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- Johnson, Lawrence A. (2012-01-18). "San Francisco Opera to present three American world premieres in 2013". The Classical Review. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
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- "Horizon - Mad But Glad". BBC. 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2016-12-14.
- "TSANJ PARTNERS WITH RUTGERS ON TOURETTE SYNDROME CLINIC" (PDF). Tsanj.org. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-02-15. 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