OAKLAND -- The Oakland East Bay Symphony set a formidable goal for itself in a Jan. 25 program intent on cracking the female code and shedding light on women as a central character.
For the most part, the concert came off blazing, especially in Richard Danielpour's "A Woman's Life," a contemporary song cycle based on seven poems by Dr. Maya Angelou and sung by soprano Angela Brown.
Michael Morgan, gently and genuinely thanking retiring Executive Director Jennifer Duston, who leaves the symphony after 17 years, launched his woman-centric exposition with Ludwig van Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b."
Rising to the surface during the composer's "heroic" period, the work is his third attempt to create an overture for "Fidelio," his only complete opera. The libretto tells the story of Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, in order to rescue her husband from political imprisonment. Victorious in the end, Beethoven presents woman as a sacrificial, smart savior.
Although Beethoven struggled mightily to compose the overture (ultimately creating versions so powerful they overwhelmed the opera's opening scene and are stand-alones of classical repertoire), the East Bay Symphony had no such difficulty. Morgan's customary energy was infectious, giving the full drama and dignity of the musicians' free reign. It brought to mind continually unfolding landscapes of sound, sly diversion; bold declaration; devilish skirmish; a trumpet reveille; and a minor descent into gloom ended in ecstatic triumph.
The orchestra's instrumental depth and a commanding composer threatened to be a knockout spoiler for what followed. But Angela Brown, appearing in a stunning, shaman-like robe inscribed with something suggesting dragons -- immediately erased any such concern.
"A Woman's Life" was composed by Danielpour for Brown in 2009. Although the text pre-existed his request of Angelou for poems arcing narratively from a young girl's fears to a mature woman's "need of a friend," the poet's words appear tailor-made for both artists. Establishing the expressivity of each character, Danielpour's score pushed Brown's vocal range lower than is customary while allowing her trademark brilliance to remain.
"I can walk the ocean floor, and never have to breath," she sang -- and we believed her.
After Brown's trailing "only just a Prince?" was sent aloft by concertmaster Terrie Baune in "Let's Majeste," the sixth song, "My Life Has Turned to Blue," anchored the work with a matchless quartet.
Voice, harp and church bell-like percussion, pirouetting across Angelou's "once-green lawns" and "summer's due," were used to great advantage. A melodious closing song was memorable for Brown's final utterance: "love." The single, sustained word, emerging plainly, took wing, crested the moon, then spiraled home. After following Brown through the stages of a woman's life, the program book ended with Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique, Op 14."