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Oakland East Bay Symphony: Gold at 20

March 3, 2009

Oakland, long recognized as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States, is a microcosm of the new face of America. For Oakland's arts organizations to remain relevant to the city's multicultural population, they must pioneer new forms of outreach and expression. The Oakland East Bay Symphony (OEBS) shines as a model of how an orchestra can thrive by tuning its programming to present and future realities.

Just last week, as part of OEBS' "New Visions/New Vistas" California Commissioning Project, the symphony's longtime music director, Michael Morgan, awarded commissions to four notable California composers. Thanks to a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Morgan evaluated the work of no fewer than 130 applicants, then selected Scott Amendola, Benedikt Brydern, Rebecca Mauleón, and Narada Michael Walden to compose new works for OEBS, which will be given premieres over the next two seasons.

The four composers are a diverse lot. What they share in common is that all work in such nonclassical genres as jazz, hip-hop, world music, electronic music, Afro-Cuban, flamenco, rock, soul, and even R&B.

They represent the contemporary folk music of America's urban populations, which, in much contemporary classical music, is cross-pollinating with symphonic music in the same way that European folk music catalyzed the imaginations of Haydn, Brahms, Dvořák, Mahler, Stravinsky, and the like. It takes enormous vision for a "regional orchestra" to pull off a commissioning project of this magnitude. It takes equal vision to attempt to engage new segments of the community through such extraordinary events as 2008's Persian New Year Concert, or the recent World Concerto, which included Indian, Arab, Chinese, and Israeli musicians.

Then again, OEBS is no ordinary orchestra. "My orchestra is a fairly hip place, as far as orchestras go," said Morgan at the "New Visons/New Vistas" press conference. "Our staff, board, and audience are all in favor of experimentation. The audience has let us go out on a limb and see what happens."

Clear BeginningsIt was a different story when the former Oakland Symphony declared bankruptcy in the mid-1980s. Rather than abandon the cause, orchestra musicians and supporters founded an entirely new organization with a fresh outlook. In July 1988, the Oakland East Bay Symphony incorporated. Two years later, Michael Morgan, who had guest conducted the orchestra while simultaneously serving as assistant conductor to Georg Solti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was engaged as music director.

Robert Schwartz, a longtime symphony subscriber and donor whose violinist wife, Debbra Wood Schwartz, sometimes subbed in the old Oakland Symphony, was on the founding board of the OEBS, and served as cochair of the search committee that identified and pursued Morgan. Two decades later, the Schwartzes are helping to chair OEBS' 20/20 Anniversary Campaign, whose goal is to ensure the symphony's health in the decades to come.

"During his interview," Bob Schwartz explained by phone, "I remember Michael saying, 'I would like to have an educational symphony.' That was his goal — to have the symphony involved in musical education. It sold me. I had also met Michael's father, who said he [Michael] was waving something in time with the music when he was in the high chair at two years of age. The whole thing was just wonderful. You couldn't be in a room with Michael and not be very fond of him."

For his part, Morgan found his wishes fulfilled. "My initial vision of what I wanted to do is what we've done since I came on board," he explained in an extended phone interview. "I'd worked with an orchestra that played the world stage, and I wanted to work somewhere that played exclusively to the local stage. Oakland had all the same sorts of problems in terms of the orchestra and its relationship to the community that we had been working on in the Chicago Symphony. I wanted to do something where everything was closer to the ground than that, where you're not looking over your audience's shoulders at all; you're just looking at the people who live right around you."

Morgan rejoices that the OEBS' central organizing theme has always been to serve the community. This is what has kept him in Oakland so long, and what has helped him retain some of the longest-serving staff members you'll find in an orchestra of Oakland's size.

"In 1989," he says, "we were still carrying the baggage of the old orchestra, and still elitist, Eurocentric, and all that stuff. At the 20-year milestone, we know that we've all found a way to make this thing go and be of some relevance to someone. We have become a generally welcomed part of the community, which could not have been reliably predicted when we started."

Outreach to Youth

"This whole business of how you make a community better is at the core of our work," says Morgan. "Arts education is necessary to produce civilized people — people who appreciate not only who they are but who everybody else is, and feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves that they want to contribute to.

"If you are engaged in making the education system better, you're engaged in trying to produce better people. Therefore you get a better community at the other end. If people feel they don't have a stake in what's going on, and don't want to preserve it and hand it off to the next group, there's no reason not to do whatever you want at the moment. If that includes destroying things, that's what you do."

Education and outreach consume a full third of OEBS' $2.1 million budget. Programs include Young People's Concerts, four annual special matinee performances on two consecutive days that attract 7,000 students from schools throughout the East Bay; biannual Side-By-Side Concerts, such as Feb. 27's concert that puts members of the Oakland Youth Symphony onstage with the OEBS; School Visits/Ensembles in the Schools that reach over 3,000 students in 20 Oakland schools and close to 1,000 students in seven Livermore schools; the Muse Program (MUSic for Excellence), launched in 1998, which provides comprehensive music education in grades K-12 for the same number of Oakland and Livermore students; and the Young Artist Competition, founded in 2003, open to students residing and/or studying music in Alameda or Contra Costa counties.

The symphony's approach has been to try to identify those students whom it could most help receive a more well-rounded education through music. This has meant targeting underserved youth in schools and neighborhoods whose populations are classified as "at-risk." Because budgetary constraints limit how much one organization can do, OEBS sees itself as part of a larger network of engaged organizations that are trying to make a difference.

"What people do in social services, et cetera, is equally important," says Morgan. "We just happen to be musicians, and this is what we can contribute. Our attitude has always been that if everyone can try to improve things for whoever is in their spheres of influence, eventually those rings will all move out and overlap and create a better community. Whatever one's occupation or vocation is, the issue is, are you using it to try to make things better in your community, even if it's just for a kid or two? If you are, and everyone else does that, eventually the whole thing gets better."

Successes and ChallengesClose to 50,000 people attend the orchestra's performances every year. Nearly 20 percent of ticket buyers identify as non-Caucasian. Compare that to the national average of just 5 percent non-Caucasian, and the extent of OEBS' success becomes clear.

Initially, OEBS primarily engaged Oakland's African-American, Asian, and non-Hispanic Caucasian communities. It has since broadened its outreach to other communities, mounting such events as last year's Persian New Year Concert, and the recent World Concerto. Morgan's African-American heritage, his often-ebullient presence, and his penchant for enlightened political commentary all help attract an audience.

From performances of Bernstein's Mass, to concert versions of shows such as Porgy and Bess, Stephen Sondheim's Follies, and this May's Show Boat, he knows how to engage the Bay Area's liberal sentiments.

"We're branching out into more parts of the tapestry," says Morgan. "What has changed is that as we learn more about our community, we find more interesting things to highlight about it."

The big stumbling block, so far, has been the Latino community. "The way we reach into a community is by collaborating with musicians of that community," says Morgan. "On our last 'Let's Break Bread Together' concert, for example, we included a mariachi group in our sing-along Messiah. But the language barrier is enormous. Comfort with language is a greater barrier than comfort with music. We have not cracked that at all." Quality Is KeyYou can do all the outreach in the world, but without quality music, combined with programming that makes the community want to come back for more, you cannot build an audience for symphonic music.

Hence, the spirit of OEBS' per-service musicians (that is, not on long-term contracts) and their sense of engagement are crucial. "People play with us not to use the orchestra as a stepping stone, as many people use regional orchestras, but rather because this is where they live and have family," says Morgan. "As a result, the level of the orchestra has gone up over the years.

"At least as important, what I do has also gone up. We've all gone up together, especially in terms of the very core, standard repertoire. We can now do a Brahms symphony that's quite good. We've always done contemporary things very well, and we've always done crossover things very well. But as I've gotten older, the standard repertory has gotten much better."

The deadening acoustic of the symphony's beautiful current home, the Paramount Theatre on Broadway in downtown Oakland, remains a major stumbling block. How do you fully engage audiences with symphonic music's Technicolor splendor when musicians have a hard time hearing each other onstage, and the audience receives but a pale reflection of what the musicians are creating?

Therefore, one of the goals of the symphony's 20/20 Anniversary Campaign is to initiate plans for a permanent performing arts venue in Oakland. Another is to contribute to the formation of an East Bay performing arts collaborative that will include the Oakland Ballet, Oakland Youth Orchestra, Walnut Creek Festival Opera, and Oakland Symphony Chorus. (Morgan's participation is central to this effort.) Additional goals include expanding the concert season with Sunday matinees and repeat performances of subscription concerts throughout the region, establishing an endowed music director's chair, and growing the symphony's endowment fund.

"I know I can attract people who have never been to the symphony before," says Michael Morgan. "Once people experience the quality of our performances and the feeling of community in the hall, they're drawn to come back. There is enormous joy in all we do."

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.