Oakland East Bay Symphony opens stylish new season

Flash-bangs at the Paramount 

A program of brilliance and bling fired up a full house Friday night at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland’s refurbished Art Deco masterpiece, and that was a perfect setting for the on-stage sizzle. 

Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony in their Opening Night concert, “New world A-Comin’,” titled after Duke Ellington’s hopeful work for orchestra and improvised piano. After a two-year endeavor to bring composers of popular music into closer partnership with full orchestras, Morgan was pleased to open this season with a program entirely of American works that ranged an era of symphonic-jazz fusions.

In his opening remarks, Morgan laughingly mentioned that he was proud of his recent press, a banner headline that read, “The Conductor that Occupies Oakland.” Turning serious, he went on to say, “This orchestra is extremely proud to be a part of the City of Oakland, and I don’t think ever more so than in the last couple of weeks.”

The high point of the night was Sara Davis Buechner, who starred in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (The Age of Anxiety), a work of startling rhythms and luminous progressions. No slouch as a jazz pianist, Bernstein, best known for his West Side Story, performed the difficult piano part while conducting the 1949 premiere. Its colorful language and jazz idioms made its cadenzas iconic, while its poetic underpinnings (it is based on the poetry of W. H. Auden) gave it masterly depths.Sara Buechner

Age of Anxiety opened with paired clarinets softly drifting together and apart, then turned to descending scales, flute to piano to harp. Buechner was thoughtful, near dreamy, slowly building intensity as the orchestra layered strands into chaos.

The piano came into its maturity with sharp-edged passages. Then a gorgeous moment as piano notes trickled down and flute chords climbed. Strings trilled slow fourths while Buechner’s heavy chords gained tension, and that latent power was released into huge broken runs.

As Buechner threw herself into Bernstein’s search for human and artistic faith, I felt what Russians might feel when they hear Tchaikovsky—a sense of pride and national identity. And that sense solidified in the brooding “dirge” and turned joyous with celesta in the upbeat jazz rhythms of the dance. After a final raging cadenza, the piano slowed to simple and moving utterances, a discovery of faith in an impossible world, and I realized that the pianist was wiping tears from her cheeks. Her part done, the strings swelled with choral harmonies, heavenly, and then the horns came in for the big finish.

The stage was set with an American benchmark, George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Though the opening was a little ragged (after a summer and fall apart), their energy was infectious and then they found their sweet spot in Gershwin’s slow theme, one made famous by ballet and film. And those taxi horns, sax glides and insouciant trumpets!

That early 1928 jazz tribute was followed by Duke Ellington’s New World A-Comin’, written in 1945 as an exchange between orchestra and improvisatory piano. After Gershwin’s bright sass, Ellington’s long passages were a mellower shade of gold, gorgeously performed by Ellen Wassermann. Only one note marred the performance: the piano ought to have been center stage, as in the Bernstein. But despite the back and side placement and nearly closed lid, Wassermann brought it to bold life.

They closed the concert with Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Estancia Suite, originally written for ballet. And it was very danceable! Hand-beaten drum tattoos were followed by gentle winds and shimmer of strings, and on to stout horn work. They ended with a splash of high-energy that brought the audience to its feet.

—Adam Broner

Photo of Sara Davis Buechner.

Joan Baez joins the Symphony on Sunday, December 11 for their popular annual holiday celebration, “Let Us Break Bread,” along with the Mt. Eden High School Choir, Klezmer band Kugelplex, and the rocking Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. See for tickets and more information.