Oakland Symphony’s joyful holiday celebration
pays tribute to Aretha Franklin
By Lou Fancher
If you’re looking to experience an abundance of joy this season, Oakland Symphony’s annual Let Us Break Bread Together concert held at the Paramount Theatre is the holiday concert not to be missed. This year, the symphony pays special tribute to legendary singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin.
Joining the orchestra in traditional seasonal carols, hymns and gospel songs on the program are Oakland Symphony and Combined Choruses, Jazz Mafia (Adam Theis), Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mt. Eden High School Concert Choir, The Best Intentions and Vocal Rush. Among other special guest artists is one of the Bay Area’s finest vocalists, Tiffany Austin.
Austin will perform arrangements of Spanish Harlem and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. “I love these two songs because they are popular examples of how Aretha can cover another artist’s song and make her version transcend any other recording. Aretha brings a tenderness married with a fire that both moves the spirit and the body,” Austin said in an interview.
Growing up with Franklin’s music as a virtual soundtrack to life, Austin recalls dancing to Franklin’s powerful voice with her parents in the living room and belting out the lyrics to Respect with other women during family get-togethers. The music was indispensable—and is today inseparable—from Austin’s self-identity as a woman of color and an artist.
“Aretha paved the way for women of color through her music and activism,” Austin said. “Not only by actively participating in the Civil Rights movement, but also by defying genre. She sang jazz, classical, blues, soul, pop with their own signature style and didn’t let anyone tell her differently. The example she set opened my eyes to the idea that music is not a set of boxes. It’s a rich tapestry of cultural information.”
The musical description as a tapestry is aptly applied to the entire program. Multiple voices will rise in unison and harmony to sing, among other works, Silent Night, The Little Drummer Boy, the Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, and the show’s title tune, Let Us Break Bread Together, in a choral arrangement by Emmy award-winning Terrance Kelly, director of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The orchestra, complimented by bands, ensembles and solo performers whose music includes jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, Motown, R&B, soul, funk and gospel, expands the sonic landscape of a traditional orchestra.
The richness and diversity of Oakland Symphony’s annual holiday celebration perfectly captures the “tapestry” that Austin describes. The mix of symphonic music, gospel-based compositions, and Franklin’s iconic pop songs make the come-away from this concert sheer, straightforward joy.