Maestro Morgan strikes up the band

  • by Jason Victor Serinus
  • Monday November 4, 2013
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Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan<br>with the orchestra. Photo: Son Lu
Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan
with the orchestra. Photo: Son Lu

Its home in Oakland's Paramount Theatre may be an easy BART ride from San Francisco, but the Oakland East Bay Symphony nonetheless remains a mystery for many San Francisco music-lovers. That's a shame, because under its gay longtime Music Director Michael Morgan, who has led OEBS for all but one of its 25 years, the orchestra has provided unique programming and community outreach that make it a model of its kind.

"We try, in our small concert series, to really reflect what's going on in Oakland and the East Bay," Morgan told the Bay Area Reporter. "Hence we end up with concerts that are more diverse and more interesting than other orchestras whose repertoire is interchangeable, one with the other. We play to our community. It's a really interesting one, so you get really interesting concerts."

One look at the six concerts of OEBS' 25th Anniversary Season (oebs.org/page/classic9.htm) reveals all that is unique about the organization. The opening concert, on Nov. 8, combines tributes to Verdi and Wagner, including the entire Immolation Scene from Wagner's Gotterdammerung, sung by Othalie Graham, with an all-American classic, gay composer Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, and a potential future classic, still-young Mason Bates' Mothership. Bates' presence is especially significant because OEBS was the first professional orchestra to program works by this now world-famous, San Francisco-based composer and DJ.

December 15 brings OEBS' annual holiday celebration, Let Us Break Bread Together. If ever a concert proclaimed "Community" with a capital C, this evening, which brings together the OEBS Symphony and Chorus, Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mt. Eden High School Choir, Crystal Children's Choir, klezmer band Kugelplex, and Linda Tillery & the Cultural Heritage Choir, does it with joy.

OEBS' commitment to honor the multi-faceted diversity of the most racially diverse city in the United States also shines in its annual Notes from concert. With this year's dedicated to the music of India, the March 28 concert balances Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 with music by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar. It also includes the world premiere of where shadow chases light, a New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Project by female composer Juhi Bansal.

Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan conducts. Photo: Pat Johnson

"This is a big deal for us," Morgan says of a Notes from series that, in past seasons, has included two concerts of Persian music, and one each for music from Armenia, the Philippines, China, and the Middle East. Each of these has brought a new Bay Area constituency to the OEBS, with some folks coming back for more.

As has the New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Project itself. Launched with a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the project began with commissions to four composers known for their work in such non-classical genres as jazz, hip-hop, world music, electronic music, Afro-Cuban, Flamenco, rock, soul, and R&B â€" Scott Amendola, Benedikt Brydern, Rebeca Mauleâ€"n, and Narada Michael Walden â€" that premiered between 2010 and 2012. None of these composers ever before had the opportunity to write for symphony orchestra.

"My orchestra is a fairly hip place as far as orchestras go," Morgan has said. "Our staff, board, and audience are all in favor of experimentation. The audience has let us go out on a limb and see what happens."

Among the happenings is OEBS' bi-annual Young Artist competition. Open to people around the Bay, the most recent winner is San Francisco Conservatory of Music cello student Matthew Linaman. He performs Bloch's Hebrew Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, Schelomo, on a Feb. 21 concert that also includes another New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Project world premiere, Mary Fineman's Songs.

In addition, the New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Project has brought an unintended benefit to OEBS's concert season. After audience members got accustomed to the amplification they heard at Narada Michael Walden's concert with Carlos Santana, OEBS followed Cal Performances' lead and began to use "sound reinforcement" at concerts. For a theatre as acoustically challenged as the Oakland Paramount, this has greatly enriched the concert experience.

"I'm very happy with it, because we actually make an impact on the audience," says Morgan. "Once I heard that the sound reinforcement system at Zellerbach had been used for the Vienna Philharmonic, I felt if it was good enough for them, it's good enough for us."

The "us" thankfully extends far beyond the concert hall. OEBS' Muse Program (Music for Excellence), which provides comprehensive music education in grades K-12, has helped keep music programs alive in most of Oakland's public schools.

"We've even started two after-school orchestras," says Morgan. "Thanks to our lobbying, music education is far better in Oakland that it was 25 years ago. There's even an annual school orchestra festival that features orchestras from nine or 10 different schools."

If OEBS, like all US orchestras, faces financial challenges, it does so via concerts that are always near-capacity if not sold out. Future plans include more song-commissioning projects for jazz and Broadway artists who rarely if ever perform with orchestra. Hopes are also high for more American Masterworks performances, in the spirit of the Bernstein Mass concert from years back that was so successful that an additional performance had to be added to begin to accommodate trans-Bay demand.

You have to walk less than a block from 19th St. BART to find yourself at the door of the historic Paramount. If you've never been, the lobby alone puts on a show so spectacular that many a queen has surrendered his/her heels in deference to the real thing. And beyond the lobby lies a symphony orchestra whose diverse programming proclaims innovation. Happy 25th, OEBS.