Morgan Shapes Symphony into East Bay Cultural Force: By IRA STEINGROOT

Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 16, 2004

In 1982, the Oakland Symphony seemed to be going in a promising direction. Under the baton of Calvin Simmons, the orchestra began to look like a world class aggregation, or at the least, a top regional orchestra, especially after it made the newly restored Paramount Theater its home base. 

The art deco classic had been reduced to a shell of its former glory when the Oakland Symphony Orchestra purchased it in 1972. After restoration was completed in 1973, the theater was entered in the National Register of Historic Places and two years later, the City of Oakland took over ownership from the symphony. But 1982 was the year tragedy struck. Simmons, that rara avis, a promising African-American conductor in the world of classical music, drowned in a canoeing accident and the orchestra went into a tail spin. 

Six years later it was reborn, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the former organization, as the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Two years after that, 25-year-old conductor Michael Morgan took over at the helm and the orchestra started moving in the right direction, not only as an important performer of classical music from all eras, but also as a major cultural force in the East Bay. At first, the new organization performed at the Calvin Simmons Theater, but they finally returned to the larger Paramount for the 1995-96 season. Much of the success of the group is the result of Morgan’s clear sense of how he and the symphony are linked to the community. 

The 2004-2005 season marks Morgan’s 15th year with OEBS. During his tenure he has conducted exemplary performances of both old war horses and contemporary works, some commissioned especially for the orchestra. Non-classical listeners often wonder if the conductors of classical orchestras do any more than keep the time. Indeed, they do. The conductor is not a human metronome, but the auteur of a musical performance, rehearsing, guiding, shaping and inspiring the final result. If you were lucky enough to see Morgan’s 1999 live televised performance of Mozart’s Tenth Piano Concerto for two pianos, you know how magnificent, energizing, fresh and entertaining his conducting can be. 

His greatness is not restricted to the podium though. Morgan, who had been an assistant to Leonard Slatkin at the St. Louis Symphony and Georg Solti at the Chicago Symphony, avoids an easy national reputation as the first choice guest conductor for Black History Month-type concerts. Instead, and more authentically, he and members of the orchestra visit local schools to talk, instruct and perform for thousands of children of all ages each year. 

He wants to make classical music available to young people of whatever background, both as fans and performers. Besides their regular season performances at the Paramount, the OEBS performs at churches, senior centers and community events, as well as a regular concert series in Richmond. The orchestra collaborates with local museum, opera, choral, ballet, and theater organizations on mutually interesting projects, as well. Morgan himself also conducts the San Francisco Symphony’s family concerts, is music director of Walnut Creek’s Festival Opera and substitutes for Denis de Coteau with the San Francisco Ballet. 

This seasons six concerts promise some great performances:  

The season kicks off on Friday, Nov. 19 with the West Coast Premiere of Nathaniel Stookey’s 2001 piece Big Bang; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring Shanghai-born pianist Tian Ying; and Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. 

On Jan. 21 the OEBS presents a mostly Mozart evening with three masterpieces from the summer of 1788: the powerful, modernistic Adagio and Fugue for Strings; and two of his last three symphonies, No. 39 in E Flat Major and No. 40 in G Minor. With a nod to the present, the concert will also feature the West Coast premiere of Chen Yi’s accessible Romance and Dance for Two Violins and String Orchestra featuring OEBS co-concertmasters Terrie Baune and Dawn Harms.  

The Feb. 25 concert will present bluegrass violinist Kenji Bunch’s just completed Lichtenstein Triptych, especially commissioned for the OEBS; Beet-hoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major; and Mahler’s Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn featuring Layna Chianakas, mezzo-soprano, and Brian Leerhuber, baritone. Mahler insinuated these songs from the Young Boy’s Magic Horn into much of his later work.  

The accent is on youth at the March 18 concert. Along with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings conducted by assistant conductor Bryan Nies; Verdi’s Overture to I Vespri Siciliani; and Emmanuel Chabrier’s España with students from the Oakland Youth Orchestra sitting in with the OEBS; there will be a world premiere of Hector Armienta’s When Waters Meet featuring young poets selected by California Poets in the Schools. 

The April 22 concert’s focus is on film with performances of Bernard Herrmann’s 1960 Suite from Psycho; Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra used in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Brian Nies conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite featured in Fantasia 2000; and the world premiere of Laurence Rosenthal’s Suite from Becket based on his score for the 1964 film of the same name. 

The final concert of the season, on May 20, will be given over to Leonard Bernstein’s ambitious Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers and will utilize the talents of the Oakland Symphony Chorus under the direction of Magen Solomon; the Piedmont Choirs under the direction of Robert Geary; acclaimed performer and Bernstein favorite Douglas Webster as celebrant; and many local jazz and rock musicians, singers and dancers. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to inaugurate the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. in 1971 and it has been a dream of Morgan’s, who first worked with Bernstein at Tanglewood, to conduct this piece here since he arrived in Oakland 15 years ago. 

All six of this season’s Oakland East Bay Symphony concerts are on Fridays at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. For information call 444-0801.