The Oakland Symphony Debuts a Classical Tribute to Ghost Ship

Composer Richard Marriott found inspiration in the fire and its victims for his new concerto.

When a tragedy leaves a community at a loss for words, music becomes the vehicle to express indescribable feelings of grief, anger, and loss. That’s how composer Richard Marriott felt after the 2016 Ghost Ship fire that forever changed Oakland. To honor the victims, Richard Marriott did what a composer does best: He put his feelings to music.

Headlines about tragedies seem to always prompt readers to wonder, hypothetically, what they would do in the same situation. For Marriott and other artists who have lived in arrangements similar to the Ghost Ship, it wasn’t so much a passing curiosity as it was a sobering realization. “It would have been the same tragedy had we had a fire in that place,” Marriott said of one of his past residences. “We never thought about it at the time, but we all certainly thought about it afterwards.”

Those kinds of places fostered a unique sense of community, trust, and an opportunity for young artists to push their creative boundaries. “It’s the idea of being free and free to experiment and free to discover and free to not make a lot of money,” Marriott said.

Rent in the Ghost Ship was between $300 and $600 a month — significantly cheaper than in the rest of Oakland, it provided young creatives with one of few affordable housing options in the Bay Area. The trade off, however, was safety. “You end up basically living in kind of sketchy situations like that, just like we did in the Mission during the ’80s,” said Marriott. “You wonder — art, the making of art, has been wedded to the urban experience in America for decades. What happens when the cities become unaffordable? It’s a very, very hard tradeoff.”

Richard Marriott wrote a cello concerto in honor of the “artists and dreamers lost in the Ghost Ship,” some of whom he knew. Called The Ghost Ship Concerto, it’ll be performed for the first time by the Oakland Symphony this week, and Marriott plans to submit it for a Pulitzer Prize. It tells a story in three movements. The first, Freedom, Exhilaration, and Discovery, puts the listener into the shoes of a young artist venturing out for the first time. “The cello comes in with a theme in C major, full of optimism, full of daring, just taking on the world,” Marriott said.

The listener travels with the young artist, with help from the orchestra, bassoon, and some Balinese melodies, and returns to the main theme — this time in D flat major. “We’ve gone with our artistic imaginations. We’ve set out, we’ve explored distant lands. We’ve fallen in love, and then we return to where we started,” Marriott explained. “The theme is full of optimism, a little bit darker with experience.”

The second movement is called Night of the Fire. Marriott listened to deep house DJ Golden Donna, the headliner from that night, for inspiration, and essentially tried to recreate the sound of that evening with the orchestra. Experienced in designing electronic instruments, Marriott said the cello is an ideal instrument for mimicking oscillators in electronic dance music.  The music swells until, in Marriott’s words, “It becomes incendiary. The music crosses that line from being merely dance music to being fire.”

The last movement, La Cremosa, is a reflection on loss, tragedy, and crime. It’s not targeted anger — rather, an open expression of grief and frustration. “It’s not necessarily at the city for not enforcing business codes, or the owner for not keeping this place together, or the master tenant for his lapses of duty. Not even at the deity who allowed such a thing to happen,” Marriott said. “But it’s necessary anger.”

It’s an artistic expression that follows in the footsteps of other local musicians that have produced Ghost Ship-inspired art. Electronic music artist Russell E. L. Butler’s The Home I’d Build For Myself and All of My Friends and Wax Idols’ Happy Ending, and Shannon and the Clams’ Onion are albums directly informed by the tragedy — although none quite as explicit in their connection to the Ghost Ship as Marriott’s concerto.

Accompanying the Ghost Ship concerto on the program are the Brahms’ Requiem and Bernstein’s Take Care of This House, featuring virtuoso Matthew Linaman on cello and the Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus. The Ghost Ship fire remains a sensitive subject for the Oakland community, and as such, publicity surrounding the concerto has been a point of contention for the Oakland Symphony. While the organization has made efforts to contact several family members and survivors to offer free tickets, current and former staff at the symphony say it was a minimal gesture that came way too late. Corinne Rydman, a former staff member at the symphony, said she was angry at the organization’s “total disregard for the gravity of the Ghost Ship to Oakland, Oakland artists especially, and passively excluding those who lost the most while using the event to win clout in the orchestra industry.”

What remains constant, however, is the importance of artistic expression in the face of unspeakable disaster. Marriott’s composition, as well as all of the other music and art that have been created in tribute to those who lost their lives on that night, are a steadfast commitment to independence and community — even under the most hopeless circumstances.

Friday, Nov. 16, 8 p.m., $25-$90, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland,

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously named the concerto Ghost Ship Requiem. It’s Ghost Ship Concerto.

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