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Oakland East Bay Symphony

Margot Schwartz

Michael Morgan

February 23, 2007

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We Appreciate

Elegant Playing in the East Bay

By Robert P. Commanday

The Oakland East Bay Symphony put into the Paramount Theatre on Friday with a lot on its plate, manifesting a strong point of view or two. The results were impressive.

For one thing, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor was not a visitor, not an import. Margot Schwartz was Oakland-born and -trained, first by her violin-teacher mother, Debbra Schwartz, then at the Crowden and San Domenico schools, at Northwestern University, and currently at the Yale School of Music. She has held several concertmaster positions and won awards. Friday, she gave a performance of great assurance, clarity, and precision, with Michael Morgan conducting the orchestra in finely formed support.

Michael Morgan

The Sibelius, however, needs a big player — and the more so in the Paramount aerodrome. Schwartz is not that, at least not yet. The piece wants passion and rhapsodic playing of its music, which is not, as some of Schwartz’ contemporaries signal it, the same as swaying about and other animating. Guided by cautiousness perhaps, this performance was more about elegance in which her refined lyric and high-register playing were sensitively drawn and telling. It simply was not stirring — that is, finding drama in the breadth of contrast. No mistake about it: Schwartz has a remarkable career ahead of her. Oddly, she played the same Sibelius with the Berkeley Symphony on January 13. (Evidently Macy’s doesn’t speak to Nordstrom.) But the regional orchestras are, for their part, endorsing artists of their regions.

In another kind of statement about an orchestra’s proper role, Morgan conducted the premiere of the newest in the orchestral works commissioned through Kathryn Gould’s Magnum Opus project. Accordingly, Pierre Jalbert’s Fire and Ice will go on to performances by the Marin and Santa Rosa symphonies. It is a piece of such shallow draft that I’m not sure much will come of it, except that its listener-friendly style makes readily available the shimmering atmospheres of Ice (actually, the first movement) and the surface syncopation energies of Fire (the second movement).

Jalbert is skilled in the craft of orchestration, deftly using once-exotic effects and keeping the voicing high and rarefied. But his musical ideas are thin and treated repetitively, the harmony is slow and ordinary, and even the rhythmicized action music in Fire generates little real energy. To be sure, it is difficult to imagine the piece getting a better performance than it had at its launching, but then it’s not really new.

Celebrating Music in the Schools

After intermission, Morgan celebrated and proudly demonstrated his role, and that of his orchestra, in encouraging and teaching music in the public schools. Some 70 student players from grades 5 through 12 assembled onstage alongside about two dozen Oakland East Bay Symphony musicians to play Richard Meyer’s Celebration (1988). It is a well-crafted, five-minute orchestral work in the tonal, upbeat style of the contemporary symphonic band literature. It was excellently played, intonation right on, sections unified in their ensemble. Now that was stirring.

Participating were 10 of the 19 Oakland schools visited every week by Oakland Symphony musicians as mentors, as well as five schools from Livermore included in its MUSE (Music for Excellence) program. Carl Stanley directs the Symphony’s program, which particularly seeks out and teaches the financially challenged and talented youngsters — "to support the music teachers, as part of the Oakland Schools' music program," Stanley says. That’s exemplary symphony outreach, not going to the schools to play at the kids but giving them the hands-on, voices-on experience directly.

Finally, Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony in a highly creditable performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. It was a performance respecting the work’s traditions in interpretation, observing the composer's detailed nuances, and carrying a good, long line. In a sense, a regional orchestra takes a risk performing a work like this, which is imprinted in the memories of listeners with the grand sonorities of the great orchestras, in particular their strings.

While Oakland’s strings could not match the possessing resonance of those exemplars, they did well, meeting the challenge with their sectional unanimity. At times in the first movement, they were somewhat overbalanced by the winds, and Morgan might have corrected that in performance. The solo winds sounded fine.

(Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.)

©2007 Robert P. Commanday, all rights reserved