Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Oakland East Bay Symphony Performance, "A Night at the Opera"

Review of November 13 performance published in papers and website of the Bay Area News Group on November 16, 2009, under the headline,"'Oakland East Bay Symphony opening a hit despite venue glitches."'

By Cheryl North

It's clear that the people of Oakland and its outlying areas love their symphony orchestra. The cavernous Paramount Theatre was nearing capacity and the surrounding parking lots were packed by 7:55 p.m. Friday in readiness for "A Night at the Opera," the OEBS' season-opening performance. One stately Oakland widow, leaning heavily on her cane, had braved a long, six-block trek from her car to the Paramount to enjoy what she called "a beautiful, inspirational concert."

With this and many other examples of strong audience support for the orchestra and Michael Morgan, its charismatic conductor for 20 years, in mind, I hesitate to write a single negative word. But my honest assessment is that the Paramount is not a very good venue for opera. While the instrumental ensemble sounded richly sonorous and full-bodied and Maestro Morgan proved a powerful but sensitive presence on the podium, the hall's acoustics inhibited most of the solo singers from projecting the full sonic timbres of their voices.

Another possible victim of the acoustics was a slightly wan-sounding (redeemed somewhat by OEBS' noble brass) Siegfried's Funeral Music from Wagner's Die Gotterdammerung, under the direction of assistant conductor Brian Nies.

The musicianship of the onstage performers was excellent. The orchestra shone with a warmly enveloping sound in the evening's opening work, the brass-rich Overture to Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischutz, as well as in Verdi's Overture to Nabucco and the lovely, almost prayer-like Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

The roster of fine operatic singers included sopranos Hope Briggs and Heidi Moss; mezzo-soprano Patrice Houston; tenors Kalil Wilson and AJ Glueckert; baritones Brian Leerhuber and Zachary Gordin; and bass-baritone Joshua Bloom, along with the choral skills of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, conducted by Lynne Morrow, and the Oakland-East Bay Gay Men's Chorus, conducted by Michael Robert Patch.

Wilson was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra in Lonely House from Kurt Weill's Street Scene, which he sang lyrically in an appropriately jazz-blues-opera style. This was followed by scientist-singer Moss' affecting aria, Je marche sur tous les chemins from Massenet's Manon, and baritone Gordin's rendition of that same composer's Vision fugitive from Herodiade.

The evening's high points included honey-voiced soprano Briggs in a powerfully moving Pace, pace mio Dio! from Verdi's La Forza del Destino; baritone Brian Leerhuber's poignantly mesmerizing Mein Sehnen, Mein Wahnen ("Tanzlied") from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt and Bloom's La del ciel nell'arcano profondo from Rossini's La Cenerentola.

Donizetti's glorious Sextet from his Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Briggs, Houston, Wilson, Glueckert, Gordin, Bloom and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, was up at a similar heady level, as were the ensemble performances of the "Triumphal Scene" from Verdi's Aida and the achingly beautiful rendition of Make Our Garden Grow from Bernstein's Candide.

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