Oakland Symphony’s New Season Offers Abundant Surprises
By Lou Fancher
People who enjoy gifts reflecting contemporary, global culture that arrive like colorful, unexpected surprises wrapped in centuries-old history and tradition adore the Oakland Symphony. Indisputably capable of breezing through the classic complexities of Vivaldi’s Concerto for 3 Violins in F, Mahler’s The Song of the Earth, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 or Grieg’s Piano Concerto — all featured during the orchestra’s 2019-20 season — the venerable troop dares to summit new or lesser-known musical frontiers. Importantly, seeking novelty is not the mission. Instead, energized by challenging, unpredictable adventures and the joy of performing underplayed treasures, the musicians led by music director and conductor Michael Morgan aim to invigorate classical music and strengthen its connection to “the now.”
Three programs this year best prove the symphony’s commitment to exploration: The season opening concert, Hot as Hell/Cool Jazz; a third Playlist series curated by Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson; and the Audience Choice selection of Amy Beach’s late 19th-century work, Symphony No. 2, Gaelic, which represents rarity (Beach is one of few early and successful female composers in American classical music). The nationalist work with Irish themes comes paired in a concert with composer Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road, an oratorio based on the writings of underground railroad hero William Still.
Morgan in an interview attributed the musicians’ stylistic flexibility — essential for mastering the broad-ranging repertoire — to having had, in addition to rigorous classic training, deep experiences with jazz or other improvisational forms. Case in point? Pianist Taylor Eigsti and trumpet player Josiah Woodson join the orchestra for a jazz-inflected season opening program brimming with spontaneity; the byproduct of the guest artists having attended the symphony’s Oaktown Jazz Workshops as young students. “Oaktown Jazz Workshops teaches traditional improvisation and careful listening that yields musicians of great awareness and individuality,” said Morgan. “They have a freedom that classical musicians should envy.”
After decades at the helm of symphonies, festivals, youth orchestras, and educational initiatives in the field, Morgan is irrepressibly pleased not simply to offer surprises to audiences and musicians, but to experience them mutually. The Playlist series consistently provides that stimulus. The first program was curated by socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell; the second featured selections from Dolores Huerta, Mexican-American labor leader, civil rights activist, and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Morgan said the suggestion of Tyson for the third series came from a member of the Oakland City Council. “Unbeknownst to me, music plays a role in most of Mr. Tyson’s speaking presentations. Besides being so important in Oakland, he is the embodiment of the big thinker who is not in the field of music but for whom music is important. That was always the main thrust of my Playlist idea — to show people how important music is to people who are not musicians and how broad their tastes are.”
Morgan’s point is being made, if the audience’s winning votes for Beach’s symphony are an indication. Diversity embraced has created what Morgan said are “some very sophisticated people in our audience,” many of whom cast enough votes for the less well-known work to “push it across the finish line.”
Lest anyone wonder about younger generations, whose connection to classical and jazz music wanes without reinforcement and vitality, the symphony is consistently forward-thinking. Far from an asterisk in an era concerned with freedom, it’s notable that Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was quashed by the Soviets for nearly 25 years. Morgan promises the work in March 2020 will spring to fresh liberation as performed by the orchestra and a yet-to-be-announced Sphinx Competition’s Emerging Artist Winner. “Sphinx is an internationally recognized competition for Black and Latino string players,” said Morgan. “There are huge prizes and great opportunities for the winners, but for me what sets Sphinx apart is how well they look after the kids that don’t win. Once you’re even a semifinalist, the Sphinx organization takes you under its wing and helps get you the training you need for success.”
The full season includes the annual winter holiday concert (this year devoted to the music of Aretha Franklin), appearances by dancers of Oakland Ballet, music from Korea, and concerts presented by Oakland Symphony Chorus and Youth Orchestras.