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East Side Story

Gordon Kalton Williams writes from San Francisco

You’d almost expect musical innovation in the East Bay area of San Francisco. Harry Partch, who conceived music with 43 tones to the octave, was born in Oakland in 1901 and, though a hobo for much of his life, regarded the Oakland/East Bay area as his preferred stomping ground. In 1946 Dave Brubeck, fresh from the army, went to an all-girls’ school here, Mills College, specifically to study with Darius Milhaud. Gertrude Stein, whose family moved here in 1878, reputedly said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” But the city has made a defiant feature of the novelist’s statement, so the area is probably not as empty as this statement could be taken to mean.

My wife, Kate, and I been here seven weeks now, stomping up and down ourselves between downtown Oakland and the university precinct of Berkeley, and to be frank, have hardly set foot in ‘the city’, as East Bay denizens refer to San Francisco. We’ve barely felt the need to. There is so much going on over here.

Oakland, named after the giant Californian oaks that once covered the area, is to a large extent the maritime part of San Francisco. Writer Jack London used to meet his seafaring mates at a saloon made out of the hull of an old whaling ship down on the water’s edge. The main claim of Berkeley, the city that lies to the northeast, and considers itself ‘here’, is its famous university, established in 1868. Here the much-walked and leafier streets are full of cafes hosting students taking advantage of complimentary wi-fi to finish their assignments.

But it’s the music that’s the focus of this report, and if you look at what’s going on in the area, it might include at any one time something like Ensemble Mik Nawooj performing Music for the Integrated World, a free public lecture by Leon Botstein (President of Bard College, NY, and Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra) or the Vienna Philharmonic’s ‘first appearances in the Bay Area for 20 years’. But I’d like to portray this area with a tale of two resident ensembles – the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra and Berkeley Symphony.

Berkeley Symphony was founded in 1969 as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra by Thomas Rarick, a protégé of Sir Adrian Boult. At first the orchestra sought new audiences by dressing in casual clothes and performing in unusual locations. When Kent Nagano became Music Director in 1974, he changed all that. The Symphony concentrated on new works (Messiaen and Frank Zappa came to perform with them), swapped back into formal wear and moved its principal venue from the First Congregational Church to the 2,015-seat Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. The orchestra’s third Music Director, Joana Carneiro, continues the commitment to new works, including, notably, fostering the work of young Bay Area composers.

The orchestra has an establishment of 50 strings plus woodwind, brass and percussion. In Nagano’s day, many of the musicians were Berkeley professionals, doctors, professors. That percentage has changed. The personnel is now more likely to be drawn from the Bay’s huge pool of roving professional musicians. As with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, musicians are paid on a per service basis, which consists of rehearsals and performances and some in-school instruction. Nearly seventy-five percent of the orchestra’s funding is contributed income, from donors like Kathleen G. Henschel, Meyer Sound or The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, with the rest generated from ticket sales. But the Orchestra also plays regularly for Cal Performances, the major entrepreneur on the Berkeley campus. (For Cal Performances in future weeks, it will thus be accompanying the Royal Danish Ballet. It recently appeared with Lorin Maazel in two presentations of Britten operas (Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia) from the Castleton Festival of Opera.)

I met the orchestra’s Executive Director, James A. Kleinmann, at a café on University Avenue, during a break in the orchestra’s preparations for their final concerts of the year. I started by asking him about an unusual feature I’d noted on their website. It lists a dramaturg. Yes, says Kleinmann, ‘Chloe Veltman [who is also the Bay area correspondent for The New York Times] interviewed Joana Carneiro for the League of American Orchestras’ magazine after Joana was appointed music director. They began talking about how it would be really nice to have someone who could provide a greater sense of context for the works being programmed, someone who could look at the points of connection between programs and composers, ultimately someone who could partner with Joana in some of the programming ideas but initially really focusing on how to create public points of engagement for the audience outside of what you experience when you’re sitting in the hall from 8 o’clock to 8.45, and from 9 o’clock to 9.50.’

But Veltman doesn’t actually provide editorial input into new works. The Orchestra also has a creative advisor, composer Gabriela Lena Frank, who is heavily involved in the orchestra’s commitment to new music. Along with meatier-than-the-average subscription concerts Berkeley Symphony has a series known as ‘Under Construction’.

‘“Under Construction” goes back probably about 15 years,’ says Kleinmann. Each year, two “emerging” local composers are selected to take part. From the moment of selection they are able to talk to either Joana or Gabriela about what they are composing. They compose ten minute works which are presented and discussed in concert in January. They then have two months to consider revisions and improvements coming out of that initial airing. The Music Director and Creative Advisor meet with the composers ‘fairly regularly’ says Kleinmann. ‘And every time we have a [regular] concert we use that as an opportunity to gather Gabriela and Joana and the composers together even if we’re not leading into an “Under Construction” concert.’

Kleinmann notes that this project is not cheap. ‘On a single reading session we’ll spend $10,000 and that’s not even a full orchestra,’ But clearly Berkeley Symphony feels the commitment is worth it and it is, after all, part of Berkeley Symphony’s brief. As Kleinmann says, sounding a note of slight dismay: ‘Orchestras don’t workshop. Theatre companies and opera companies workshop. But orchestras let someone write a piece, and when that composer decides it’s done, it just gets rehearsed, premiered in one week and that’s it.’

You probably wouldn’t expect to find a better place than Berkeley to trial new works. At the Under Construction concert I went to one Sunday night, the audience sat mum for the first 30 seconds of question time at the end, until Gabriela Frank said, ‘Oh come on, this is Berkeley!’ In response, one of the audience members asked a very good question about whether composer David Coll retained in his head through all the subsequent months of revision the train sound that had first inspired his work, Act. (The answer was yes.)

But I asked Jim Kleinmann about this tradition of enquiry and innovation and he said: ‘It’s the spirit and the nature of what it’s meant to be part of California. It’s the landscape, the way the land meets the water, the fact that we were “the frontier”, [there was the] Gold Rush, anyone could come here and make their opportunities happen. And it’s all true. It’s where Silicon Valley comes from. When Facebook decides to become an international brand, it moves to Palo Alto. Twitter comes out of here, and Intel and Hewlett-Packard. They’re technology companies, but there’s also the Green Movement, the influence of people like John Muir, the Sierra Club. I think people are drawn here because of the spirit.’ This orchestra may draw its core audience from a radius of only 10 miles (Berkeley and nearby Oakland), but they inject an energy and vitality into a demanding local scene beyond their size.

As you head south down College Ave and Broadway to the CBD of modern Oakland, the atmosphere becomes less academic, less sedate. Perhaps less middle class, but the number of people jogging (that most ‘young professional’ of pursuits) around Lake Merritt on a dazzling winter Saturday belies that. One of the FAQs on the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s website asks: “Is downtown Oakland dangerous?” and when we first arrived in the Bay Area someone told us that Oakland is the fifth most violent city in the United States. But we caught the bus downtown for one of the night-time concerts, and what struck us mostly was what I can’t help noticing as an Australian meeting Americans at ‘the public interface’: exceptional courtesy and cheerfulness and good humour. (Australians behind a counter may say, ‘No worries’, but you wonder why there might have been any in the first place.)

Oakland has surely seen grander days. A few of the old buildings are admittedly empty and spruiked, with no intended irony, as ‘great rental opportunities’, but one of the classics is Timothy L. Pflueger’s 1931 Paramount Theatre, a wonderful old ‘dream palace’ that is now the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s home.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony’s website blatantly states that a symphony orchestra ‘improves the community’s economy and quality of life’, and points out that for every $1 spent on an arts organisation in a community, another $1.50 will be spent in the community. The OEBS’s mission is overtly to serve theirs. Why wouldn’t it be? According to Jennifer Duston, the Executive Director, ‘We’ve been cited by the League of American Orchestras as having the most diverse audience of any orchestra in the country.’ According to the 2010 census, Oakland’s population is roughly a quarter each of African-Americans, Whites, Hispanics and Asians. ‘We enthusiastically embrace our role as a community-service organisation,’ she says, ‘through both the artistic offerings that we provide as well as the education and outreach offerings.’

Perhaps what is most interesting is how the serving of this community results in more than the standard orchestral fare. This year’s season has seen Carlos Santana appear as soloist in the premiere of jazz drummer Narada Michael Walden’s The Enchanted Forest (a work written for the New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Program supported by the James Irvine Foundation). The Orchestra has also presented the West Coast premiere of Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist and composer Billy Child’s Violin Concerto with Regina Carter; and will shortly present another New Visions/New Vistas premiere, Fade to Orange, by bandleader, composer and drummer, Scott Amendola. Later in the year, the OEBS will give a concert performance of the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes/Elmer Rice opera, Street Scene. Well-known classics are interwoven with these innovations. The orchestra doesn’t list an Artistic Administrator on its masthead, though. ‘That is Michael,’ says Jennifer Duston of Michael Morgan, their Music Director, who is like a one-man lynchpin of the wider region with titled positions at the Oakland Youth Orchestra, Sacramento Philharmonic and Festival Opera at Walnut Creek.

We went to a concert one Friday night. ‘Welcome to the Paramount!’ beamed the front-of-house staff. This was the second of two concerts that the OEBS have scheduled, at the suggestion of an Orchestral staff member, to coincide with Nowruz, the Persian New Year, so important to the many Iranians who live in the South Bay. The program consisted of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto featuring three American-Iranian musicians (Tara Kamangar, Cyrus Beroukhim, and Arash Amini) sandwiched between the compositions of three generations of American-Iranian composers – Behzad Ranjbaran, Ahmad Pejman and Omid Zoufonoun. So how was such a program received? We sat up the back of the circle in $20 seats where we could see the 3,040-seat theatre fill to near-capacity. There were standing ovations for the Beethoven and the final work on the program, a particularly effective work for kamancheh and orchestra by young local composer, Omid Zoufonoum.

Any orchestra would have been happy with the reception. I asked Jennifer Duston, though, if these audiences came back for other concerts. ‘That’s a question that orchestras that do such specific cultural programming ask themselves. To some extent you are absolutely developing additional new audiences for other programs, but we also recognise the fact that when we do these concerts not all of the attendees will come back. And that’s okay. We’re just thrilled to be reaching new audiences and the reason we do it is not solely, or even specifically, to build audiences for the other concerts. It’s just such an important part of our mission to create programs that attract as many different communities as we can.’

And for that reason among many, probably, the OEBS and Berkeley Symphony invest heavily in education. One third of the OEBS’s budget is spent on education through their MUSE (Music for Excellence) program that covers Young People’s Concerts, Ensembles in the Schools, the In-School Mentor and Instrumental Instruction and the Young Artist Competition. Lucas Hopkins, a saxophonist who received an Honourable Mention in the 2010 Young Artists Competition, performed an extract from Paul Creston’s Saxophone Concerto before the concert that we saw, to an audience that had remained behind after the pre-concert talk. Berkeley also devotes a huge amount of its activity to educational work. With its interactive on-campus concerts, classroom visits and springtime’s ‘I’m a Performer’ concerts, it reaches 4,000 students in all eleven schools of the Berkeley Unified School District. ‘For example,’ says Kleinmann, ‘at Malcolm X Elementary, we have classroom visits for all the grades K through 5 every year. And then we also have a concert in the Fall to introduce the kids to the orchestra. For the older kids we’re trying to introduce them to more developed concepts about tempos and rhythm and composition techniques, and in the Spring the kids are working on their own instruments – either they’ve made their own or are playing real instruments – and we actually have them play with the orchestra.’ And just to give an example of how the area is serviced by the same pool of musicians weaving together the strands of various careers, Tom Horgin, who is listed on Berkeley Symphony’s orchestra list as Principal Trombone, is also the OEBS’s Education Director, as well as second trombone.

It’s interesting to consider that both these orchestras present such innovative programs, though dependant to a far greater extent than Australian orchestras on box office and donations. I noted that the OEBS website actually tells potential donors what they’ll get for their contribution – for a $50-99 donation you get advance program notes and subscription to OEBS’ newsletter E-llegro, plus the opportunity to attend an Open Rehearsal. OEBS, like other arts organisations in the area, works hard to make itself felt in the community.

I asked Jennifer Duston her final thoughts:

These are certainly challenging times for non-profits and arts organisations, in this country. But I think we can flourish and do well when we, in fact, serve our community and find our niche in them. And it’s going to be different for every orchestra because every community is different. I think that the success that OEBS has had over the years is really more than anything else due to the fact that we have a mission of community service and our community, as diverse as it is, comes together around this little symphony orchestra.

Which tends to make me want to be defiant. If you want to know how much is going on in the East Bay area, pace Gertrude Stein, there is plenty there.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2011

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Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO)