When the renovated Fox Theater opened in 2009 to much fanfare, there were concerns about the effect the concert venue would have on its similarly sized, slightly mustier neighbor, The Paramount Theatre. But a cursory glance at the theater’s programming this fall reveals that it’s having no problem booking high-profile acts of its own — including Anthony Hamilton and Nicki Minaj. This year, as always, it will host the Oakland East Bay Symphony under the direction of Michael Morgan, who will unveil an all-inclusive mix of timely commissions and old standards. It will also present Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil in conjunction with the SFJAZZ festival. Though the art deco venue was built as a movie house rather than a concert hall, Morgan said that sound engineers have tweaked it to accommodate 65 musicians plowing through a Handel concerto. He’s excited for the coming season, which will be as illustrative of Oakland’s community as its venue is of the city’s history.
Like everyone else, Morgan is fixated on election year politics, and he’s decided to launch Oakland East Bay Symphony’s fall season accordingly. This year’s opener, called “Celebrating Democracy” (Nov. 9), will feature works exclusively by American composers. They’ll include selections from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story, a clarinet concerto by Aaron Copland, and Adolphus Hailstork’s piece An American Fanfare. He’ll also sweeten the pot with two pieces by local composers — a world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Homework Suite and Episodes for Orchestra by retired UC Berkeley professor Olly Wilson. “All we’ll be thinking about that week is American history and politics,” Morgan said, echoing the concerns of some of his counterparts in the theater world. Like them, he contends that the election need not supersede art — rather, artists should treat it as a muse.
In fact, a keen social awareness informs the bulk of Oakland East Bay Symphony’s programming for the 2012-13 season. The orchestra’s holiday concert, called “Let’s Break Bread Together” (Dec. 9), has a long history of combining music from different religious traditions. This year it will feature music from the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Piedmont Choirs, the Mt. Eden High School Choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and the klezmer band Kugelplex. Morgan said he’s always wanted to be inclusive, rather than book a program of Christmas carols or spirituals. He’s worked with the choirs for a number of years, always making an effort to balance contemporary pop and R&B styles with more traditional gospel — a dynamic he maintained even during a sing-along performance of Handel’s Messiah a few years ago, which featured classical coloratura singers alongside an American Idol finalist. Kugelplex is his most recent addition, and it’s added an Eastern European element that was hitherto lacking, Morgan said.
Naturally, diverse programming and a multiculti sensibility is all but incumbent on any artistic director who wants to court a diverse East Bay audience. SFJAZZ, which features some of the best, most stylistically adventurous, intergenerational lineups in the country, chose to feature two worldish artists for its Oakland concerts: hot young star Esperanza Spalding — who played the Paramount last Saturday — and her older male analogue, Gil, who will perform there on October 25. On the whole, the organization has tried to spotlight local musicians wherever possible, particularly in its series of free concerts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It will include sets by Nice Guy Trio (Sept. 6), Kugelplex (Sept. 13), Jesus Diaz Y Su QBA (Sept. 13), Marcus Shelby Orchestra (Sept. 15), and Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers (Nov. 10).
And we’d be remiss not to mention Cal Performances, which has two orchestral residencies this November: the Philharmonia Orchestra (Nov. 9-11), and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (Nov. 28-30). Both will host open rehearsals and pre-concert talks for ticket holders in an attempt to provide a more well-rounded pedagogical experience. Other notable music highlights include a special October 28 performance of the (gulp) five-hour Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach, a jazz concert by the Delfeayo Marsalis Octet (Oct. 16), Chucho Valdés & the Afro-Cuban Messengers (Nov. 7), and African singer Angélique Kidjo (Nov. 17).
Of course, Berkeley has the advantage of being a university town, which will always make it a focal point for classical music and other highbrow arts. But Oakland is quickly catching up. Morgan has conducted the city’s venerable symphony for 23 years now, but he’s getting steadily more adventurous with programming — the spring calendar will feature a special Middle East presentation (Apr. 20), with Israeli-American guest conductor Daniel Wachs, and a commission from Egyptian composer Nader Abbassi. That’s part of an annual series highlighting the music of a specific region of the world, in an attempt to engage new audiences, Morgan said. In a way, it also helps ground the orchestra in its hometown. “This area is so diverse, we’ll never run out [of cultures to feature],” he said. “So we can engage a whole new audience with whatever program that is.”
Update, 8/29: A previous version of this article contained two misstatements: First, that the singer Joan Baez would be participating in the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s holiday show, and second, that Nader Abbassi is Palestinian. He is in fact Egyptian.