OEBS concert on Feb. 21 promises new beginnings
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent Contra Costa Times
There's a lot to love in Oakland East Bay Symphony's upcoming concert at the Paramount Theatre on Feb. 21.
Encased in the rapturous, entwined detailing of the Art Deco theater's soaring side walls and ceiling, OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan will lead a program bursting with the promise of youthful, new beginnings.
Fittingly, a preconcert talk will be hosted by Oakland Symphony Chorus Music Director Dr. Lynne Morrow at 7 p.m. After last year's turn on the OEBS podium (conducting Faure's Requiem) and actively involved with a number of Bay Area youth orchestras and choirs, Morrow will bring expert insight into an evening filled with instrumentation and song.
Members of Oakland East Bay Symphony's MUSE young musicians program will join the orchestra in Modest Mussorgsky's roiling "Night on Bald Mountain." The turbulent, nine-minute opening rouser sets the stage for the sustained drama of Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra" and 22-year-old cellist, Matthew Linaman.
When Linaman's not "busking" with his cello street quartet -- the four-person troupe's free, spontaneous street gigs have led to chamber bookings and an international tour with the American Voices diplomatic music program, "American Music Abroad" -- Linaman is in demand as a teacher and solo performer.
"Matthew is one of the best players the San Francisco Conservatory has produced and is also a joy to work with," Morgan said in an email. "I was thrilled when he won the Oakland East Bay Symphony competition. I did some rehearsals of 'Schelomo' with him when he played it at the conservatory and really look forward to performing it with him."
The evening's world premiere, "It's About Love," a song cycle by Oakland-based pianist and composer Mary Fineman and performed with the orchestra by vocal soloist Wesla Whitfield, signals an advent.
Fineman is an accomplished singer-songwriter whose fellowship with OEBS's New Visions/New Vistas Commissioning Project, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, demonstrates the art of renewal. Application to the program is open to composers who are legal residents of California and have not had their music performed by a professional symphony orchestra. Selected composers are paired with a mentor and in an interview from her Glenview neighborhood home, Fineman said she could not have completed her quartet of love songs without Elinor Armer. A Bay Area composer and lecturer, Armer established and chaired the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Composition Department for 11 years.
"I had about 16 lessons with her," Fineman said. "She told me to trust my instincts. She taught me an orchestra is a society: Everybody wants to speak a little bit."
Fineman's many years working as an accompanist for instrumentalists, singers and dancers had honed her improvisational skills. Spontaneous sensitivity to situation and a highly-attuned ear -- well past hearing to insightful listening -- were tools she gained, in part, in her backyard.
"The second song, I call 'Chickadee' (titled "Morning Prayer" in the OEBS program) and it's because of a bird that ate straight out of my hand," she said. But scoring for orchestra required she practice a more cerebral, predetermined approach to create the desired interplay between instruments and voice.
"And you can't have a flute play one bar, then never hear it again," she said, laughing. Each song has a nature-themed, narrative genesis; not surprising for a lyricist. The title song's brush-filled orchestration has the summery feel of a breezy pop tune.
"'I Thought I Saw You' is a song she was unable to write until she'd "grown as a person." Her opus 1 -- or maybe 1A, she can't decide between it and another early piece, is "And The World Spins 'Round, 'Round."
A conversation with Fineman is much like her history, which swirls like fog, then pops into surprising solidity. Ten years ago, she hadn't written a single song but could play nearly anything on the spot.
In 2014, she's recording 40 original songs and has written her first composition for orchestra. "My job is to not censor the music in my head: I don't compose out of craft," she said. But learning to write for orchestra was craft, she admitted, comparing it to playing chess in reverse. Armer has helped her find the sustained voice of a clarinet to replace her own, or the pluck of violin strings to magnify a piano keystroke. Fineman said the resounding theme of love wraps its way in and through the work and process. She's not yet rehearsed with Whitfield, but predicted "she will be lovely."
Antonin Dvorák's "Symphony No. 7" will close the performance.