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Two Very Different Symphonies

May 19, 2009

The diversity of the Bay Area can be witnessed in many different ways, from the variety of the cuisine offered in its restaurants to the multitudinous kinds of topography. One less obvious way to explore the radical differences that coexist in this part of the world is to look at the local symphony orchestra scene.

To many people, San Francisco Symphony is the only orchestra of note in the Bay Area. But while this organization might be considered world class, it's by no means the only group worth paying attention to, as my concert-going experiences last weekend suggest.

Over the weekend, I experienced concerts at both the SF Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony (OEBS). Both groups offer wildly contrasting experiences and have very strong identities. SF Symphony might have the far greater reputation, but while the program I heard at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday will probably fade from my memory in the not too distant future, I don't think I'll forget Friday night with OEBS for a long, long time.

At Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday evening, a small chamber orchestra was joined by the Symphony Chorus under the baton of the Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie for an all-Handel program. The Symphony isn't a period music specialist group and the first half of the program consisted of workman-like executions of the Three Coronation Anthems and the G minor Organ Concerto (soloist Richard Pare). The space felt dead even though the house was mostly full, and by intermission, I wondered how much more Handel I could sanely handle in one evening. In the second half, though, when Labadie was joined on stage by three excellent vocal soloists for the Dettingen Te Deum, Davies Symphony Hall came alive. Light yet warm interjections from countertenor Matthew White and tenor Frederic Antoun offset heartfelt, vibrant solos from baritone Joshua Hopkins and the choir followed suit with an energy that had been decidedly lacking from the first half of the evening. All in all, an uplifting, but on the whole unremarkable musical soiree at Davies.

The situation in Oakland couldn't have been more different. I can't think of a better place to hear the music of the great early 20th century American composer Jerome Kern than the gorgeous Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland -- one of the finest examples of Art Deco design in the United States I've ever set foot in. Conceived by San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in late 1931, it was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture. The building began life as a glorious movie palace before going into decline for several decades and then being rescued by the Oakland Symphony, the City of Oakland and numerous private donors. The building was purchased by the Board of Directors of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association in 1972. A restoration project was completed in 1973 and on May 5, 1977, the Paramount was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Utterly gobsmacked by the architecture, I was also amazed to find the huge theatre which seats 3040 people absolutely packed out for the concert. I'm trying to find out whether the audience consisted mostly of people from Oakland itself or whether OEBC attracts crowds from other parts of the Bay. I'd be surprised if many people from San Francisco ventured across the Bay to see the show, though. I'm extremely ashamed to say that I personally never made it out to hear an OEBS concert in the entire seven years that I lived in San Francisco. More the fool me.

People responded warmly to the first half of the program which consisted of famous musical numbers from the Jerome Kern songbook including the lusty lyric baritone Robert Sims' rendition of "Pick Yourself Up" and debutante soprano Julie Adams' take on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The orchestra did an eloquent job with the Kern's hyperbolically lush orchestrations and the OEBS Chorus seemed more connected to the music than SF Symphony's Handel chorus. However, I wasn't taken with many of OEBS' soloists. Part of the problem was the use of radio mikes to amplify the soloists' voices which made them sound tinny. Part was simply to do with the quality of the singers. They all did OK. But with the exception of Sims, they delivered so-so performances which lacked real individuality and vocal strength (despite the mikes).

Even Sims came a-cropper in OEBS' concert staging of Show Boat. He struggled to reach the low notes in "Ol' Man River." Still, Show Boat on the whole was a terrific crowd-pleaser with compelling narration by Eric Wenburg and sparkling playing from the orchestra. I felt transported to another time and place with the whole experience.

This kind of programming so eloquently suits OEBS. The sense of community and hum of excitement was palpable at the Paramount on Friday night. I can't say I felt these things at Davies the following evening. Then again, SF Symphony is a completely different animal. If there's any grain of useful information to be extracted from this blog post it's the following: The San Francisco Symphony isn't the only show in town. Orchestral music lovers should think about striking out at least for Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose every once in a while.

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