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Michael Morgan has led the Oakland Symphony for the past 28 years, a tenure that has produced stellar performances in a city well-known for musical excellence.
The symphony will continue that fine tradition on May 10, when it will present a special performance of “West Side Story.” The music for the classic Broadway musical was written by the late Leonard Bernstein, a renowned composer and conductor who also was one of Morgan’s musical teachers.
The concert is scheduled at 8 p.m. May 10 at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland. Tickets start at $25 and can be bought online at www.oaklandsymphony.org.
Local News Matters recently chatted with Morgan via email and phone. Below is a Q&A based on those conversations, in which Morgan discussed, among other things, the challenges of running a symphony today and why orchestras nationwide are celebrating Bernstein’s legacy. (The Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.)
Why perform “West Side Story” in 2019? Did the current political climate play a role in that choice?
No, it’s because it’s one of Leonard Bernstein’s greatest hits, and we’ve been doing his pieces all year. It’s timeless. You can’t help but think about Puerto Rico when you think of “West Side Story,” but we’re performing it because we’re celebrating Bernstein this year, and “West Side Story” is one of his masterpieces.
Why honor Bernstein this year?
All orchestras are doing pieces this year for his 100th birthday. Also, he was one of my teachers, and I don’t always get to honor my teachers, because not all of them were legends like him. And to honor him throughout the year, we are playing several of the pieces he wrote. He was really America’s musical teacher. His Young People’s Concerts taught a generation to love music. Almost every conductor of my generation was taught by him at some point. And we really don’t have household names like him anymore in classical music. Classical music has been pulled farther away from where the general public’s taste actually is, but the industry is trying to change that. Some of us are trying to fill that gap or at least make it closer.
What’s one of your favorite Bernstein stories?
It’s mostly moments where he taught all of us as conductors to not hold back, to go as far as we could while staying within the scope of the piece we were doing. He encouraged great freedom, in terms of technical conducting but also in terms of expression. He encouraged everyone to live the freedom of the musical pieces.
I’d like those going to the symphony to see all the different sides of his work — how technically great, both as a composer and a conductor, he was, in addition to being able to write great turns as he did with “West Side Story.”
How far in advance do you plan your schedule of programs?
We plan farther and farther ahead now, a year-and-a-half to two years out.
You have to leave some room because world events might mean you have to do something different than what you planned 18 months ago.
What factors do you consider when planning your slate of programs?
It’s a combination of trying to include as many genres as possible. Because we don’t have that many concerts, we try to have diversity of genres so that everybody has a chance to like what we’re offering.
A few years ago, you dropped the “East Bay” part of the orchestra’s name and now call yourself simply the Oakland Symphony. What spurred that decision?
It’s the orchestra’s original name. It’s less cumbersome. It’s what everybody calls us anyway. The longer name was only for legal reasons anyway, after the previous orchestra went bankrupt (in 1986).
We always try to embrace the city of Oakland. Most of the composers we have are soloists who come right out of the Oakland community. Josiah Woodson, for example, came through the ranks of the Oaktown Jazz Workshops. Josiah is extremely successful. He’s living in Paris right now. We’re bringing him back to Oakland for a performance of some of his compositions.
Taylor Eigsti is another one. He came up in Alameda and was a fully developed musician even before working with Oaktown Jazz Workshops because he was such a prodigy.
They’ll perform with us later this year. Both of them are great jazz musicians.
Oakland is well-known for its hometown pride. Do you see a similar pride with the arts?
Yes, we have a tremendous amount of local pride. And I don’t think it’s a new thing. Oakland has always been filled with artists. It ranges from emerging to fully famous artists of every type: musicians, spoken word poets, painters. There’s just a lot of creativity coming out of Oakland.
What are the challenges of running a symphony in the Bay Area in 2019?
Like symphonies in just about every place, people have been falling out of the habit of buying subscriptions. Typically, concertgoers come one concert at a time. That makes everyone’s life unpredictable. So, we try to keep our subscription prices low, so that we can rely on the fact that a certain amount of money will be there. We’d like to build our endowment to help us withstand any possible financial bumps in the road.
What are the challenges of working with actors and singers for this performance, in addition to the musicians?
We’re performing the music of “West Side Story.” We’re not casting it as if we’re putting on a play. We cast people who sing the roles. We’ve always had singers in our chorus, vocal music is a big part of audience development for every orchestra. Even if people have never played an instrument, everybody sings; and having singers makes the audience feel closer to us. We have lots of great singers in every genre around here in Oakland. It’s not new for us.
What’s your definition of a “great show” for the Oakland Symphony?
That’s always the same: it’s whatever connects with our audience, whether it’s “West Side Story” or the African diaspora performance (“To Belong Here: Notes from the African Diaspora”) that we presented in January. It’s whatever makes people perk up and say, “Why haven’t we heard this before?”
What keeps you going after all these years as the symphony’s conductor and musical director?
They still let me do almost anything I want to do, with the only limitation being the budget. Sometimes I will change pieces because it turns out to be too expensive, but I have a pretty free hand in what I’m doing. There’s a freedom to try stuff and do new stuff, and I enjoy that.
What’s the best part of living in Oakland?
I love the diversity of Oaklanders and being surrounded by them all the time.