OAKLAND -- The Oakland East Bay Symphony is mastering the art of "goodbye."
It's said goodbye to Lone Ranger status by merging with the Oakland Youth Orchestra and Oakland Symphony Chorus to form East Bay Performing Arts; goodbye to concerts that play the same music to the same people thanks to the "Notes From" series that picks up on the Bay Area's diverse communities. And it's saying goodbye to Executive Director Jennifer Duston, who will retire Oct. 31.
"After 17 years, it's quite a decision and never simple," Duston said. "I feel the organization is in a place in its time and history where I can leave. We're ready for a new era."
With the symphony poised to embark on its second quarter-century, Duston said she can hand the reins over with confidence.
Under her direction -- and in a partnership with Music Director Michael Morgan so strong that neither can recall having differences of any consequence -- the symphony's annual budget grew from $675,000 to $2.5 million and its educational program multiplied from a $150,000 endeavor in 1995 to $660,000 in 2012.
"If you are mission-driven, then there are few disagreements," Morgan said. "Always, in the very biggest things, we just set a timeline and never thought, 'No, you can't do this because it's just too expensive.' "
Morgan says finding a successor will not be a simple task.
"The bar is set kind of high in terms of personal chemistry with me," he said. "The
The East Bay Symphony's artistic mission has always been two-pronged: present big, American musical masterpieces and offset that with deeply engaging works from the world's cultures.
"What's going on in the world requires we bring together these two elements and show them side-by-side," Morgan said.
Duston believed the orchestra has always been on the leading edge and, in merging with other nonprofits, expects the synergy to benefit the musicians, the public and, in particular, students in the organization's outreach programs.
"Everyone has a passion for our education programs," Duston said. "We've all seen lives transformed by having access to a musical instrument. Now, it's two generations of young people who have come up through these programs. It's kept kids in school and provided opportunities for college scholarships. Our role in the community is one of our cornerstones."
Reflecting on the economic downturn's devastating effect on arts organizations, Morgan said: "We've never had a lot of money, so when the bottom fell out, we knew how to survive. Let's just say the rest of the world is now catching up to us."
Although Duston and Morgan agree that survival has always been most important, they aim far higher as they plan for Duston's departure.
A national search is in process, and a full battery of interviews with musicians, donors, the search committee and Morgan will be conducted with final candidates.
The upcoming season was planned long ago.
"We started with 'Appalachian Spring' and built a concert around the work," Morgan said. "This has a lot to do with the mayor wanting us to be a part of Oakland. In the past, the city government saved our education programs and helped the orchestra survive."
Subsequent concerts, projecting a political intent that Morgan calls "unifying," include Soprano Angela Brown singing a piece based on the poetry of Maya Angelou and new works from Middle East artists Nadar Abassi and John Bisharat.
Duston said her feelings about leaving Oakland East Bay Symphony are similar to being caught in a storm. Alternately tossed between the low of "goodbye" and the high of "a little bit of thrill about not knowing what is next," she is certain of one truth: the organization she has led for 17 challenging but rewarding years is geared to survive.