Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Opening Concert of the Oakland East Bay Symphony's 16th Season

Review of the Performance in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group, November 22, 2004; Preview of Concert in Classical Music Column of November 19th, 2004, Preview Section of ANG Newspapers.

By Cheryl North

The Oakland East Bay Symphony opened its 16th season with an authentically celebratory concert at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland last Friday.

Perhaps the primary reason for such a jubilant mood was that the evening also represented OEBS's 15th anniversary with the magnificent Michael Morgan as its conductor/music director. The East Bay has a real treasure in Morgan -- and the community seems to know it.

The crowd that filled the large hall was as diversified as the area's general population both with regard to ethnicity and age. All seemed intent on lauding the good maestro, and with good reason. Because of Morgan and members of the orchestra, classical music is alive and flourishing in Oakland. Morgan and small ensembles of OEBS musicians maintain an impressive schedule of visits, demonstrations, and chamber concerts to dozens of area elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the year.

The results are beginning to show. Oakland's Youth Orchestra continues to grow, tour, and win prizes. And, with Morgan's encouragement and blessing, so do a number of youth jazz and choral groups in the area. In fact, the Oaktown Jazz Workshops ensemble, a group of Oakland students ranging from 13 to 17 under the tutelage of trumpeter and educator Kalil Shaheed, were tapped to provide the post-concert entertainment -- and garnered raves all around.

The OEBS has also attracted a very savvy group of committed board members and officers, headed by James A. Hasler as their president. And from the numbers of corporate, institutional, and individual supporters listed in the program, donations and public involvement appear to be on the upswing.

But most noticeable Friday night was the excellent quality of the musical performance coming from the Paramount stage. Oakland's string section soared with luminous tone and virtuosic playing. Woodwinds were polished and mature in terms of solos and general ensemble. The percussion was likewise exemplary.

There appeared to be a number of personnel changes in the orchestra's ranks, which could have accounted for some occasional raggedness of ensemble and some perfunctory-sounding solos from the brass section Friday. More time and rehearsal together will no doubt spruce the section up to its former spit and polish.

The large number of women in the orchestra was also noticeable. There was not a single male member of the first violins. Seconds had only three men among a total of 10 players. Males dominated the string basses, and there were both genders in the cello section, although they were not listed on the program.

Following the official welcome by the velvet-voiced KDFC radio personality Dianne Nicolini, Morgan and the orchestra launched into the West Coast premiere of Nathaniel Stookey's "Big Bang," an interesting piece originally composed in 2001 to celebrate the opening of Meymandi Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Audience members were forewarned that they were in for something novel when 150 crystal wine glasses were distributed to audienced members in the balcony. Each glass was filled with carefully measured amounts of water (watchfully supervised by the composer himself). Before beginning, Morgan advised those holding the glasses, that on his signal, each was to moisten his finger and run it along the rim of the glass until signaled to stop. Although the audience "musicians" weren't called upon until the closing bars of the work, the effects were eerily wonderful and cosmic-sounding. (Morgan later revealed that the pitches sounding were those of the major triad plus an added ninth.) According to Stookey, the title refers to the "Big Bang," the cosmological theory that the universe was born with a single big bang an estimated 20 billion years ago and has expanded outwards ever since.

Heads in clouds from Stookey's sounds were brought quickly down to earth as Shanghai-born pianist Tian Ying brought played the mesmerizing opening octaves of the famed Piano Concerto No. 3 (affectionately called the "Rach 3") by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The horns seamlessly joined in the theme while the violins proceeded to embellish it all beautifully with a series of artful roulades. The piano can, of course, sound either like a percussion or a string instrument. However, under Ying's touch, the piano's string virtues were elegantly emphasized. He succeeded in playing the signature Rachmaninoff melodies with gracefully lyrical, even vocal-like, inflections and phrasing. Morgan and the orchestra lent lushly expansive accompaniment through the thoughtful second movement, while still emphasizing some of Rachmaninoff's ingenious permutations of the primary theme.

However, the sonic fireworks and racing troika rhythms beginning the final movement seemed to get Ying's adrenalin racing so that his tempo got away with him. But, he did exactly the right thing. He stopped. He and Morgan then communicated a second or two before resuming the movement at a more controlled and manageable tempo. The result was a thrilling, cohesive success. Ying showed that he is a pianist of immense power, but with fine poetic sense of interpretation -- even though he can, himself, get carried away with the thrill of the music.

The final work on the program was a satisfying performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Although there were some in the audience who felt that the overall tempo was too fast, I did not. I was impressed with the power and coherency Morgan achieved with his chosen tempos. The inner melodic voices were cleanly evident and Brahms' signature duple and triple-cross rhythms were finely executed. There were excellent solos from oboist Andrea Plesnarski, some crystalline playing by violinists Dawn Harms and Terrie Baune, the dual concertmasters, and an excellent ensemble sound achieved by the woodwind section.

Concert Preview: Interview with Nathaniel Stookey

If only Nathaniel Stookey's great grandfather could have known, that the faithful old violin he used to play for barn dances, would one day play the great classics in the hands of his musically gifted great grandson. "I still use his violin once in a while," said the soft-spoken 33-year-old Stookey during a phone conversation earlier this week. "But now, I'm really more interested in composing."

Indeed, much of the classical music world has become interested in what Nat composes. The Oakland East Bay Symphony will open its 2004-2005 season with Nat's Big Bang tonight at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, in Oakland. Other works on the OEBS program will be Sergei Rachmaninoff's stirring Piano Concerto No. 3, considered to be one of the most difficult ever written, with young Shanghai pianist Tian Ying as soloist, and Brahms' glorious Symphony No. 1. Michael Morgan will conduct.

While the OEBS performance will represent Big Bang's West Coast premiere, Stookey originally wrote it to serve three purposes: it was one of many requirements for his Duke University Ph.D. degree; it was to be the piece opening the North Carolina Symphony's 2001 season; and it was intended to celebrate the gala opening of the area's important Maymandi Hall. He geared its style and format to show off the acoustics of the new hall, which he explained was designed by the same architects who did the recent retrofit of San Francisco's Davies Hall and of the Tanglewood concert hall outside of Boston.

"As a result," Stookey said, "the piece has some novel sound effects. Since it was for a gala event, I thought of the fanfares once played by the valveless trumpets. And since that instrument can only play three pitches, the piece is features a lot of major triads (which translates to non-musicians as being quite easy on the ears). I wanted it to be fun."

Another of Stookey's pieces, Out of the Everywhere," will be performed next May by the San Francisco Youth Orchestra in the final concert of its season, and yet another piece will be played by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble in March.

Stookey was actually born and raised in San Francisco. He attended the San Francisco's French-American International School and one year at Lowell High School. His maternal grandmother and his mother were both raised in Oakland, where his maternal grandfather had a barber shop for many years. Besides his violin-playing great grandfather, his only other musical relative is Paul Stookey of "Peter, Paul, and Mary" fame, his father's first cousin.

As a four-year-old, Nat fell in love with the sound of the violin when he heard one being played on the radio. He begged his mother to buy him one and to allow him to have lessons. Wisely, she consented to let him play the violin, but only if he had some piano lessons FIRST (a good idea, because then a child easily learns to read both treble and bass clefs). So, little Nat began piano at four and then at five, the violin. He became good enough to play with the San Francisco Youth Orchestra from 1986 to 1988.

While he certainly loved the violin, he did not enjoy solo performances. As a result, he started dabbling in composition and found that he liked that far more than the idea of pursuing a career as an instrumental soloist. His first compositional success, The Head of the Creek," was performed at the Hidden Valley Institute of the Arts. A few months later, when he was only 17, he became the youngest composer ever commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony's "New and Unusual Music Series."

He then attended UC Berkeley from which he earned a Bachelor's Degree in Music, and later, went to Duke University, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. Degree in Music. By the age of 23, he was awarded a residency with England's distinguished Halle Orchestra. While with Halle, he produced four compositions over three seasons. His pieces premiered at the BBC North, the Harrogate International Festival of Music, and at Manchester's Free Hall.

Good luck visited him once again when his piece for orchestra and narrator, entitled Colliding with Chris: The Rhythmical Tale of a Runaway Bike, was selected as a London Times Critics' Choice. It was subsequently performed in North America.

While he was in North Carolina he met and married his wife. During these years he worked as a house painter, supervised children in an after-school program, and waited tables at restaurants to make ends meet. Things changed, however, when he was awarded a three-year Composer-in-Residence grant with the North Carolina Symphony. The grant was funded by Meet the Composer, a New York City foundation that places composers in residencies with symphony orchestras throughout the United States.

Big Bang, his first production during his NCO residency, was followed by additional compositions for the Mallarme Chanber Players, the Ciompi Quartet, and for the North Carolina Symphony. "Other than the fact that you draw a salary," he said, "the best thing about a residency with an orchestra is that you develop a relationship with the orchestra and the conductor, who in the case of the NCO, was Gerhardt Zimmermann." Another thing that grew out of his North Carolina years was a CD, "Music for Strings, 1992-2002," produced by Albany Records.

In 2003, following the completion of his Ph.D. and his NCO residency, the family, which now included two children -- son Milton and daughter Gertrude -- moved back to the Bay Area. His wife is a doctor and works as an epidemiologist at Stanford University. "We wanted to raise our children out here and to be nearer to our parents. My parents and my wife's parents both live in the same San Francisco zip code," he said.

When asked about future projects, Stookey spoke enthusiastically about a new collaboration to work with Lemony Snicket to write an orchestral piece for children. "The first classical piece remembered by most children is either Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Stookey said. We want to create something that will also bring children to classical music and have a positive impact on them." He also said that he had a Chamber Opera on his mind for the future as well as some songs.

"My faraway goal is that I hope people will still be listening to my music many years from now. But my bottom line is that I LIKE writing music. I really get a charge out it!"

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