Oakland Symphony and Mads Tolling

Variety and spice at the Paramount.

A varied and satisfying program held something for everyone last Friday evening at Oakland’s Paramount Theater, where Michael Morgan guided the Oakland East Bay Symphony through both a brand new frolic and a stern mass.

But first, Assistant Conductor Bryan Nies led a performance of Samuel Barber’s complex Symphony No. 1. An early twentieth century American visionary, Barber was just 25 years old in 1936 when he wrote his first symphony, and one can hear both the brasher signatures of his generation and the luxurious harmonies that later came to define him.

Slow phrases with wrenching transitions and a manic “City That Never Sleeps” scherzo contributed to a work that had a lot to say but was challenged in defining its identity. Between the bluster and the babel they had their work cut out. Nonetheless, the brass were heavenly, and short solos from bassoon, oboe and cello were tenderly presented.

Nies, who also conducts the Festival Opera, has a flair for drama that came in handy with Barber’s big moments, along with a sensitivity that allowed him to tease us through the lush moods. In other words, it was solid.

And then his former mentor, Morgan, took the stage for the headliner, Begejstring, a World Premiere by Mads Tolling, who is a cross-genre genius and has already won two Grammy awards for his classical-infused jazz albums.

This was Tolling’s first attempt at writing for full orchestra, although he is an accomplished composer for his own jazz ensemble and the Turtle Island String Quartet, with whom he played for nine years. In this larger foray he had the encouragement and help of John Kendall Bailey, a conductor who has helped bring other avant-garde fusions to completion – and the lecturer before each Oakland Symphony concert.

Written in three movements, Begejstring (enthusiasm) begins with simple progressions. Violins shimmered and harp arpeggios spangled across the air (Natalie Cox was, as always, eloquent on harp), and then the winds took up lines that crossed as elegantly as a Bach/bluegrass fugue.

But then it turned rhythmic with a brass section that easily found the groove supported by special guest Eric Garland on full drum set. That paved the way for Tolling’s first cadenza, and he plugged his violin in and started fiddling with foot pedals, creating an electronic instrument that looked like a violin but sounded like the singing density of clarinet.

While Tolling’s own acrobatics were delightful, his maturity as a composer was apparent in the solos he wrote for trumpet, gorgeous high figures beautifully executed by the Symphony’s William Harvey.  These bright notes with fast tails were like flares above the orchestra. A languid blues pavane featuring clarinetist Diane Maltester gave way to piano riffs by Jeff LaDeur, and then returned us to the upbeat third movement, “Jubel” (rejoicing), and the brass steamed back in like a freight train.

Tolling cranked it up for his final cadenza, wandering through the popular forms with dazzling technique. My only quibble is that he resorted to sampling and looping over his own material while the orchestra waited patiently, instead of using that orchestra for those very lines. Or is this the modern equivalent of those choice violin chords that get thrown into every cadenza?

And all this before intermission! After, a surprising awards ceremony. Two representatives from American Composers Forum, based in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, took the stage to eulogize Morgan as a “2015 Champion of New Music.”  As they handed him a certificate, a local composer added, “He opens the boundaries of what music can be. I’m reminded of Mary Poppins when she says, ‘It’s always a jolly holiday with you, Bert!’ And it is with Michael Morgan also.”

Truly, Morgan has deepened the scope of what an orchestra can be in relation to its host city. Watching him conduct Tolling’s boogie-woogie riffs, swaying and completely at ease in his experimental “laboratory,” one could feel a palpable love of community underscoring his love of music.

And then a classical reward that felt perfectly at place with the modern: Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, orchestra enlarged by the mighty Oakland Symphony Chorus and four top-notch soloists from the SF Opera Adler program.

The chorus was strong on diction and fervent in their transitions into minor, a solid backing for those excellent soloists. Soprano Julie Adams’ bright notes partook of the fire of destiny, belling through the vast Paramount. Zanda Švēde was no slouch in the mezzo part, with a darkly simmered sound that seemed to emanate from within our own breasts. And Anthony Reed delivered a splendid bass sound with the tight vibrato of youth. They, along with tenor Chong Wang, will assuredly be heard on many World stages.

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Mads Tolling; below of mezzo Zvanda Svede and soprano Julie Adams; photos courtesy of OEBS.

In addition to their regular concerts, next Friday, Feb. 27, Morgan brings the Oakland Symphony string sections to party with jazz vocalist Tad Worku at Richmond’s Craneway Pavilion in a concert titled, “Love is All.” This concert will benefit free health fairs for low-income communities.