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Oakland East Bay Symphony Celebrates Democracy

November 9, 2012

Oakland Symphony

Jeff's pickThe opening night concert at Oakland's Paramount Theatre for the OEBS officially celebrated Democracy, in tune with the recent national election. As Music Director Michael Morgan's "Message from the Maestro" put it:

We should celebrate the fact that we live in a country where nearly everyone is eligible to vote and therefore has a role in running the Republic. There has been a great and historical struggle to bring us to this point and for those who choose to participate, it is a moment that brings us together.

The struggle Morgan referred to was aptly symbolized by the Jets/Sharks conflict in the final piece of the program, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and the "bringing together" by the inclusion of composers of varying ethnicities. But there were other struggles apparent as well, in the quality of some of the performances and of Morgan's ineffective attempts to bring slower passages to life. The better moments, however, reminded the audience of the potential this orchestra possesses.

The concert began with American Fanfare (1985) by the African-American educator Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork. The attractiveness of the four-minute work for the OEBS brass section showed through the distracting performance errors, and should be reprised at a future concert.

Next came the lightly scored Homework Suite (1961-62) by Bay Area composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty, written while he was a conservatory student. Its five very short unassuming movements run eight minutes in total. The most memorable is the first, "Seascape," which suggests a calm but wistful day on a lonely shore by means of a beautiful but unexploited melody for oboe.

OEBS Clarinetist struts his stuff

Bill KalinkosAaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto (1947-48) concluded the first half, lovingly played by principal clarinetist Bill Kalinkos. Here the beautiful melody of the first movement, extended and intensified by the composer, was unfortunately not exploited by conductor Morgan, who toned down its climaxes and kept its tempo too rigid for my taste. The faster second movement fared little better, as Morgan was not able to convey a sense of orchestral involvement despite Kalinkos' efforts.

After intermission came a local African American's work that evidently received the most rehearsal, Olly Wilson's Episodes (200-2001). The 18-minute work consisted of 7 sections ("episodes"), each of which "initially appears to be independent of the others," according to Wilson.

I cannot corroborate his assertion, since I couldn't detect the boundaries between Episodes 3-4 and 6-7 on first hearing. The music has a number of sustained drones on varying instruments that serve to blur the supposed boundaries, while at the same time providing continuity to the exposition. In any case, the music was interesting, a little thick in orchestration, but definitely worthy of further hearings.

Olly Wilson The concert concluded with Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story extracts. Here again the slow sections seemed to fritter away, but in the energetic numbers like "Mambo," Morgan ignited his orchestra, eventually earning an enthusiastic ovation from a whistling audience.

An interesting bit of audience psychology occurred prior to the beginning of the Bernstein. Morgan arrived prematurely on stage, while a continuing series of rearrangements of percussion instruments was in progress. Patrons began chuckling whenever it seemed the section was ready, only to require yet another rearrangement or fetching from backstage. The tittery mood thus generated caused further laughter during the performance when the orchestra was directed by Bernstein to snap fingers in the Prologue.

Relative to the election, an innovation in the program booklets reminded me of the budgetary concerns that drove much of the political debate, and those that plague cash-strapped nonprofits today. The OEBS dispensed with the usual thick program book. "We're not taking down quite as many trees this year," Morgan informed the crowd. Instead, a single 11.5 x 17" half-folded glossy sheet was distributed that contained concert basics. Patrons were informed that more could be had by going online ("But please not during the concert; wait till intermission!") to www.oebs.org/programbook.htm. Once there, readers encountered more information about the performers, but no more information about the compositions than was sketchily included on the concert pages. Also, there were plenty of ads and lists of donors.

I laud the paper austerity, but vote in favor of future online supplementals that do a better job of educating about the music.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. 

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