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Oakland East Bay Symphony Puts Community First

by East Bay Express

The Oakland organization reaches out to diverse audiences with its programming and education.

In an era in which symphony orchestras speak of community outreach as frequently as mice chase cheese, the Oakland East Bay Symphony (OEBS) puts its money where its mouth is. Fully one third of its annual budget is devoted to education and community outreach.

The symphony’s orientation has shifted radically in the 21 years that Michael Morgan has served as music director. The second gay African American at the organization’s helm — the first, the gifted Calvin Simmons, died in a freak boating accident at an early age — Morgan has guided the organization from its more traditional role as the Oakland Symphony to its current orientation as an Oakland East Bay Symphony that speaks to the entire population of the East Bay.

When Morgan states, “The Oakland East Bay Symphony reflects the East Bay in the diversity of its programming, and by serving the community where it needs to be served,” he is not reading from a press release. You need only look at OEBS’ unique audience demographic to recognize that its intensive community-building and outreach efforts have helped build a trend-bucking, multi-faceted audience.

According to OEBS Marketing Director Debbi Hersh, in 1998, when symphony attendees responded to an audience survey, 90 percent identified as Caucasian. In a 2003 online survey distributed to OEBS’ mailing list, 78 percent identified as Caucasian. By 2008, the Caucasian percentage of online respondees had dropped to 73 percent. A full 18 percent identified as members of other ethnic groups, and 9 percent chose not to answer the question.

While no one is claiming scientific accuracy here — not all people on the OEBS mailing list actually attend concerts — any way you look at it, OEBS is far ahead of other American orchestras, whose average audience is 95 percent white. In a city such as Oakland, which vies with Long Beach as the most ethnically diverse in the United States, the presence of so many ethnic minorities in the OEBS audience indicates that the entire community values its gifts.

But audience numbers are only part of the story. OEBS’ annual concert season, which is exceptionally diverse and exciting, and its many educational efforts, also set it apart from the pack.

In the last few years, the orchestra has intensified its efforts to reach out to specific segments of the community. While most OEBS programs mix traditional orchestral and choral offerings with unusual music, the pieces chosen increasingly reflect the East Bay’s rainbow ethnicity.

After past concerts honoring the area’s Persian and Armenian populations, this season’s “Notes from the Philippines” (April 20) puts Filipinos in the spotlight. Even the evening’s “traditional” offering, Antonin Dvorák’s great, heart-tugging Cello Concerto, honors the Filipino community with the choice of Filipino/Jewish American and Oakland native David Requiro as soloist. A graduate of the Crowden School, alum of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, and recipient of the OEBS junior division Young Artists Competition some years back, Requiro has used his first prizes in the prestigious 2008 Naumburg International Violincello Competition (when he was 23) and three other major competitions to launch an international career.

After the Dvorák comes the first composition for classical orchestra from Filipino-North American jazz pianist Victor Noriega. Morgan learned of Noriega from Carlos Ziálcita, producer of San Francisco’s annual Filipino-American Jazz Festival. Noriega was still formulating his ideas for the piece at press time, but was pretty certain that it would reflect both his cultural background and jazz roots. He points to his 2006 CD, Alay, whose jazz interpretation of Filipino folk songs won a jazz award in Seattle, as possibly indicative of his direction.

Commissioning new works from artists immersed in other musical disciplines is nothing new for OEBS. Over the past few years, their New Vistas/New Visions initiative, sponsored by the Irvine Foundation, premiered commissions from four California artists: Scott Amendola, Benedikt Brydern, Rebeca Mauleón, and Narada Michael Walden (with no less a personage than Carlos Santana on guitar). Jazz, rock, Afro-Cuban, and electronica have already danced together on the stage of the Paramount Theatre.

Other concerts this year include “New World A-Comin’” (November 4), which mixes works by Gershwin, Bernstein, and Ginastera with one by Duke Ellington that foresees the end of oppression and racism; and the annual “Let Us Break Bread Together” holiday celebration, whose melting pot of artists includes the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mt. Eden High School Choir, the klezmer band Kugelplex, and the great Joan Baez.

Next year begins with an outing of Orff’s perpetual Carmina Burana (January 27) that celebrates the recent merger of OEBS, Oakland Symphony Chorus, and Oakland Youth Orchestra into the newly-created East Bay Performing Arts; “Heroes and Giants” (February 24) that honors two composers whose careers were terminated by the Nazi holocaust, Erwin Schulhoff and Mieczyslaw Weinberg; the deceptively titled “Stops on the Orient Express” (March 16) with music by Schubert, Rorem, and Brahms; and a “Do That Voodoo” (May 18) season closer with Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Voodoo Violin Concerto, a world premiere by jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, and more treats from jazz vocalist Paula West.

If that isn’t the most culturally diverse season of any orchestra in the United States, it’s only because other orchestras are finally waking up to the world surrounding the crumbling ivory tower. When funding finally materializes to convert the Calvin Simmons Theatre on 10th Street into a viable, acoustically superior performing arts venue, even more people will be able to appreciate the symphony’s gifts.

The cynical might say that OEBS’ programming is about filling seats at a time when an aging white audience, long-steeped in classical music, is dying off. While increasing attendance at a time of declining funding is important, Morgan’s bottom line is building community through music.

“It’s always been central to our mission that we are a community-building mechanism,” he insisted. “We have a diverse, fractious community, and we program deliberately to not only bring in different parts of the community, but also to sit together and appreciate different kinds of music. That’s why I mix Persian and standard repertoire; I want to build community by having those two communities sit together.

“One doesn’t expect to do a Filipino program and get Filipino audience members to your other concerts. But doing so builds connections to the community. The goal is not to build numbers, but to approach a community in a genuine way and expand the family of people that feel welcome at the OEBS. Each time we reach out, we make some new friends. And when we return to the community, as we did last year with our second Persian-themed concert, those friends come back and we do add others. Our outreach seems genuine, not condescending, because it’s about building community first.”

The East Bay can’t even begin to emulate the Venezuelan example of “El Sistema,” which has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of young people with the glories of classical music, if we continue to eliminate music education from our schools. Thus OEBS’s Music for Excellence (MUSE) program operates in an astounding 18 Oakland public schools, and serves more than 3,000 students in grades 3-12.

Jeanette MacDonald, the progressive principal of Franklin Elementary School in East Oakland, has been working with OEBS for at least seven years. “We started out with Maestro Morgan personally coming to our school and encouraging a student body that speaks 28 different languages to think about all kinds of music,” she said. “He built up the desire for music to be part of our students’ lives, and brought members of the symphony to sit next to them, talk about their instruments and career paths, and make the music come to life.”

Franklin provides every student with fifty minutes of music education a week. This includes work with handbells for hearing-impaired students who use them to feel musical vibrations. On Wednesday afternoons, students from four other elementary schools come to Franklin to benefit from mentorship by OEBS musicians and play in the MUSE Orchestra. Once a year, that orchestra performs alongside the OEBS at the Paramount.

“Music is truly the universal language at Franklin,” MacDonald says with pride. “There is no requirement to do anything more than listen and be willing to feel the message the music is conveying. And because the children come from very low socio-economic backgrounds, we fundraise to make sure they get the instruments they need.

“I have seen children that would sit in the corner and be little mousies go up on our stage and grow ten feet. That is the honest-to-god truth. My little kids may be newcomers to this country, and not have much, but when they pick up the violin, and the violin speaks, everyone listens to the kid and instrument becoming one.”

The contributions of the Oakland East Bay Symphony are so vital that, even during a huge budget crisis, Oakland’s City Council chose to maintain all of its arts funding and make cuts elsewhere. The message is clear: You can’t build community by cutting off its heart and soul. As more people of every color and nationality imaginable are touched by the power of OEBS’ music, everyone benefits.

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