Lifting our republic above the aftermath of the stormy 2012 election season, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and music director Michael Morgan opened their 24th season Friday night with "Celebrating Democracy," an all-American tribute to the unifying power of music.
Taking his place before a slim line of brass, percussion and timpani musicians, Morgan launched composer Adolphus Hailstork's energetic "American Fanfare." Witnessed from a balcony seat in the gorgeous, art-deco cave that is the Paramount Theatre, the composition's joyful burst with hints of grandeur was not unlike the experience an immigrant might have, sighting land after months at sea.
Having disembarked on solid American ground, the concert took off on a crisscrossing musical journey.
Bay Area composer Gordon Getty's earliest piano pieces emerged in the symphonic world premiere of "Homework Suite," a collection of five movements whose only disappointment was their brevity. From the mesmerizing "Seascape" through "Giga's" Irish-laced jig to the galloping "Night Horses," the symphony here demonstrated what was to be the evening's shining achievement: a tenacious command of American composers' widely diverging styles.
Getty, on hand to pump two fists in a victory salute to the musicians, appeared enormously pleased and needed reminding to bow to the audience after the premiere's conclusion.
The symphony's principal clarinetist, Bill Kalinkos, shaped the heartland of
Kalinkos arrived last season bearing a truckload of experience in both classical and contemporary music -- a must-have for Copland's composition with its two contrasting movements and for the symphony's frequent forays across musical genres.
Beginning with an Adagio notable for its tender "conversation" between soloist and orchestra, Kalinkos played casually, with the mysterious ease one hears in an accomplished musician. His performance was ethereal yet grounded, and much of the credit must be shared with Morgan, who was able to coach nuances from his musicians that wound their way into an embrace of Kalinkos' assured tones.
The concerto offers a showoff moment in a cadenza bridging its two movements, and Kalinkos did not disappoint. It foreshadowed the second movement's jazzy, Latin American-influenced sound explosion, and Kalinkos handily conquered the solo's rhythmic architecture and tonal range.
The second movement, all swing and racy exchange, pleased the crowd and set the stage for the increasingly muscular compositions featured after intermission.
"Episodes for Orchestra," by UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Olly Wilson, was described by Morgan in remarks to the audience as a three-section work composed of seven episodes.
Tightly bound by foreboding strings, tympanic outbursts and sporadic fanfares from the brass and woodwinds, "Episodes" showed off the symphony's thunder most convincingly. A lyrical center section -- strings vibrating in smaller and smaller increments until an iridescent sound sheen was created -- gave way to gremlins, running through the final sections like a disjointed, three-legged race to the finish.
What better way to enter Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story," his All-American take on "Romeo and Juliet"?
Bernstein's cool/hot dynamic, captured by the snapping, vocalizing (twice) orchestra, and especially by the percussionists and pianist Hadley McCarroll, impressed. A lofty, sweet rendering of "Somewhere" soothed, before "Cool Fugue" and "Rumble" tore through the calm with a big band sound bouncing from one section of the symphony to another.
Suggesting democracy restored, "Celebrating Democracy" closed as it began: offering a healing balm in the majestic music of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.