Although Oakland is a town that knows a thing or two about murder -- it has more per capita than most -- it’s back from the dead. So, too, is sunny San Diego. That is to say, the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the San Diego Symphony, orchestras reborn from the ashes of bankruptcies, are now among the symphonic living.
And more important, as a visit to the two cities over the weekend demonstrated, the orchestras are living it up -- drawing large, enthusiastic audiences and making real connections with their communities. “Inspirational” is not too strong, though it may be too hokey, a word for it.
There are, of course, great differences between the two cities and the two orchestras. Oakland, despite much gentrification, still feels urban and gritty. San Diego, for all its growing sophistication and diverse population, has yet to fully overcome its beachy reputation. San Diego is the wealthier town, and its orchestra inevitably reflects that. But the similarities between the two concerts this weekend seemed more important than the differences.
Both bands play in fabulous converted movie palaces that help make a concert an occasion. Each orchestra attracts local listeners who look as though they couldn’t live anywhere else. The music directors are not particularly famous but have -- in Oakland’s case over a long period of time; in San Diego’s case, quickly -- developed a considerable and well-deserved following. The orchestras have factored high tech into their operations in interesting ways.
And both extremely well-attended concerts were happening-enough events that they caught the buck-hungry eye of Starbucks, which set up stations in the lobbies offering free samples of a new, overbearing chocolate concoction. The crowds happily lapped it up, as they did the atmosphere, the music, everything.
The Oakland program on Friday night had a buzz because it was experimenting with a new device, the Concert Companion (which likes to be known as CoCo). On a PDA made by Hewlett Packard, the musically insecure and gadget-inclined multi-taskers are offered program notes in real time.
Fear not, traditionalists. The result is so uninteresting that the CoCo will either have to find a way to become worthwhile or it will never catch on. You look down and read: “The strings sing seductively
Midway through the program, a real concert companion took the annoying thing away from me and turned it off. I looked up. And wow! All around me were entwined nude bodies. The Oakland Symphony performs in the Paramount Theatre, an 1931 Art Deco theater so dazzlingly decorated that it felt a crime to stare down at a PDA.
The orchestra’s savior is Michael Morgan, who became music director 15 years ago, when the Oakland East Bay Orchestra was formed out of the remnants of the Oakland Symphony. He is an African American conductor who attracts an admirably mixed and distinguished audience.
CoCo or no CoCo, this was a mostly involving concert. It began with a trivial recent piece by a young, Juilliard-affiliated composer. Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 1 (“Lichtenstein Triptych”), a Leonard Bernstein-inspired response to Pop Art paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, was commissioned for a consortium of Bay Area orchestras and wound up in Oakland last.
The evening continued with tight, respectable readings of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and Mahler’s songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn), sung by mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas and baritone Brian Leerhuber. Morgan’s direct performances conveyed the feeling that this was music being made specifically for its listeners.
The San Diego Symphony, broke, shut down in 1996. Two years later it was back with a flashy young conductor, Jung-Ho Pak, and trying every condescending trick under the San Diego ever-present sun to raise its profile. It was hard to take it seriously.
Three years ago, it became impossible not to take it seriously when a telecommunications executive gave the orchestra $100 million, with another $20 million promised over the next 10 years. San Diego went conductor shopping and hired Jahja Ling, an Indonesian best known as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer music series, the Blossom Festival. This is his first season in San Diego, and his program Saturday was ambitious and all over the map.
Copley Symphony Hall, the renovated, amusingly neo-gothic 1929 Fox Theatre now embedded in a drab office tower, was so packed Saturday one had to fight one’s way through the intermission crush for a hit of Starbuck’s chocolate. The audience was surely unlike that of any other symphony crowd -- socialites in mink coats, teens on dates dressed for clubbing, surfers in Hawaiian shirts, academics in tweeds.
Ling also began with a new piece: “Universal Field” by Inouk Demers, a young Canadian composer living in Los Angeles. It was a daring choice. The 10-minute work dispenses with the cello section but calls for four flutes and much percussion and enjoys blurring orchestral colors, its inspiration coming from the work of the Seattle Abstract Impressionist and spiritualist Mark Tobey.
Next up, potpourri fashion, was Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, with Naida Cole, another Canadian, as soloist. She is being promoted by her record company as a babe, and she caught the eye with a lemon-lime candy-colored gown. But her tepid playing -- all on the surface -- didn’t catch the ear.
After intermission, Ling turned to Ives’ Second Symphony. He gave it a sincere, careful reading, and the orchestra played it strongly. That was all it took. The Copley has an agreeable acoustic, and Ives’ craziness (a little toned down here, but only a little) created an irresistible exuberance. Copland’s “El Salon Mexico” was an unnecessary finale and a too obvious gesture to the nearby border. Still, it did raise the temperature yet another degree.
The San Diego Symphony is ready, under Ling, to go places. I hope it throws fiscal caution to the wind and spends its millions on hiring the best players and splurging on rehearsal time. Let its good works then attract more money and keep bringing back its delightfully eager and oddly mixed crowd.