Oakland Civic Orchestra (OCO) composer-in-residence and assistant concertmaster Niko Umar Durr’s musical talent was ignited at age 4 when he watched an orchestra rehearsal at a megachurch in Castro Valley. “From about 4 to 6, I was begging my parents, ‘I want to play violin. I want to play violin.’ I started lessons at 6, and the rest is history,” he said.
He composed his first piece at 7, started studying composition at Berkeley’s Crowden School, and joined the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra (YPSO), where, at age 12, he was the second-youngest member of the orchestra.
Now 28, Umar Durr is in his second season as composer-in-residence with OCO and has had two works premiered by the orchestra: To Anacreon in June 2019 and Zephyr in Gemini: A Serenade in May 2022.
Renegade, Umar Durr’s third commissioned piece, will be given its world premiere by OCO and conductor Martha Stoddard on April 30. It’s the final concert of OCO’s 30th season and Stoddard’s 25th as artistic director and principal conductor.
Stoddard and Umar Durr are old friends. They met at Crowden when she became the director of the school’s John Adams Young Composers Program in 2011. “He wasn’t my student, but I was in charge of the whole program, so I was always interfacing with them around the production of their pieces,” said Stoddard.
Umar Durr recalls their first encounter one summer when Stoddard had a few volunteer OCO musicians come in and play his and other students’ pieces as part of her orchestration class. Stoddard realized Umar Durr was talented. “Here he was, this kind of prodigy at 14, and I had this community orchestra. We wanted to celebrate local talent. I always want to do living composers. He was the first kid whose piece we performed,” she said.
About 2012, Umar Durr wrote a violin concerto that caught Stoddard’s attention; it was a piece he entered in YPSO’s annual concerto competition. He didn’t win. After spending a year at Berklee College of Music, he dropped out and returned to the West Coast, and Stoddard recruited him for OCO. “Once I got back from Boston, I wanted to play in more orchestras,” Umar Durr said. “I wanted to find something to fill the musical void.” It didn’t take too long before Stoddard asked him to compose for OCO.
It was a natural next step for Stoddard, a champion of new music, to create a composer-in-residence position for Umar Durr. “I definitely want to support Niko because he comes up with things that are just wonderful, [like his] understanding of orchestral color. How does he think of these things? How does he make them work? Because they really do work,” she said.
Umar Durr also has an acerbic wit that pops up in his compositions, Stoddard added. “He’ll throw something edgy in there that livens it up — dissonance — but it’s sweet and tender underneath because that’s who Niko is.”
For its anniversary year, OCO decided to spend a little more money. The orchestra gave the world premiere of a commissioned piece by another Crowden alum, Alexis Alrich, on its season-opening concert, and for this upcoming program, the group is doing some adventurous repertory works along with Renegade: George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, and Darius Milhaud’s Quatre chansons de Ronsard.
Money is always an issue and impacts what OCO performs. “All of these pieces are astronomically expensive. We have to choose carefully what we rent,” said Stoddard.
Principal horn player and board member Alex Strachan, who joined OCO in 2016, has, with other members of the newly formed board, helped ease the financial burden through fundraising and by obtaining nonprofit status for the orchestra. “We want to play the best piece we choose and not be worried about the cost. The Barber cost $1,000 to rent. We want to pay Niko because he deserves to be paid. He’s a good composer,” said Strachan.
Umar Durr said Renegade was inspired by a foggy evening in Daly City and a party on the beach that was only accessible by climbing down a cliff. For its melodic and rhythmic aspects, he turned for inspiration to hip-hop classics: Mac Dre’s “Thizzle Dance” and Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’ “Get Low.” “The piece is a love note to these songs and others like them,” Umar Durr said.
Associate Conductor Christine Brandes will lead the premiere. She singled out Umar Durr’s ear for color: “It is his orchestration that reveals his deep passion for the orchestra as an expressive vehicle. Most interesting is his use of a large percussion group. It makes me think of Andy Warhol’s prints of Campbell’s soup cans or, more aptly, the Marilyn Monroe diptych. A popular, ubiquitous object repeated with layered variation.”
When Stoddard arrived at OCO in 1997, she found a group of 20 musicians. She has worked hard to recruit and expanded the ranks with high-quality players, and she has programmed more challenging pieces. “I started out just trying to find out what would work concert to concert the first five years. We weren’t very good when we started. It was about 10 years in that things started to change,” she said. Today, OCO has 65 musicians who range in age from 16 to 75, a mix of professionals with day jobs and a few professional musicians. “Now, if people want to play in Oakland, they find us,” Stoddard said.
And Stoddard is planning on another big project or two next season. “We’ve had a few conversations about what that might look like. We have a horn player [Strachan] who is still owed a concerto due to the COVID lockdown,” she explained. “He and Niko will work together on it.”