OAKLAND -- Oakland East Bay Symphony is turning 25 like gangbusters, packing the 25th anniversary season opener on Nov. 8 with 200-year-old birthday boys, a contemporary mothership, a Wagnerian woman and the return of spring in November. The quarter-century celebration begins at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre.
First on the playlist: Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring."
The only thing missing from Music Director Michael Morgan's return to the first section of the American composer's four-part masterpiece will be pioneering choreographer Martha Graham, who died in 1991. Originally titled, "Ballet for Martha," the iconic work was a 1944 commission intended to accompany Graham's exuberant, scrupulously unembellished modern dance. The music, layered with folk tunes, hymns and glowing melodies, held broad audience appeal and won Copland a Pulitzer Prize. In 1990, it was the first piece Morgan conducted as the Oakland East Bay Symphony's (OEBS) then-new music director.
In significant ways, Copland and Morgan -- and the performance's two featured guest artists, composer Mason Bates and soprano Othalie Graham -- belong to a sonic brother/sisterhood dedicated to music for the masses. But not watered-down, pop-ified music: symphonic music -- the kind with boots-on-the-ground classicism and unlimited travel plans.
Beginning in the 1920s, Copland stretched his compositional hand from his early classical roots to genres as diverse as jazz, music for film and ballet, Mexican folk tunes and the Shaker hymns found in "Appalachian Spring." Morgan, since mounting the podium, has similarly dismantled preconceived notions of his mighty troupe's capabilities with a fearless repertoire. Past seasons have included American Masters such as Copland and "Duke" Ellington, but important, OEBS concerts have been "virtual world tours," with representation from artists in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, South America and more.
And 34-year-old Bates, whose melding of solid symphonic writing with 21st century technology is not only a YouTube sensation, but attracts upward of 800 people to hear concert chamber music, shares the same "symphonic music can be everything to everyone" mentality. Graham, too, embodies a cross-cultural, past- and next-generation mashup: Jamaican heritage, Canadian birthplace, under 40, sings the works of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi with smoldering force and rare sophistication, especially considering her young age.
The dynamic mix of old and new, local and long-distant, tightly constructed and improvisational is classic OEBS stuff and the performance, after opening with the Copland, will rock. The concert will be preceded by a talk given by music director and conductor John Kendall Bailey at 7 p.m.
"Mothership," premiered at the Sydney Opera House by the YouTube Symphony in 2011, bears the imprint of Bates' eclectic biography. Classically trained at Juilliard, with a Ph.D. in composition from UC Berkeley, Bates once led a divided life: concert hall composer by day, "DJ Masonic" at San Francisco clubs and warehouse parties by night. Jazz influences filtered into the hip-hop techno sound Bates was spinning, and eventually he discovered a hybrid of all three: the electroacoustic orchestral configurations earning him commissions and residencies worldwide. In the Bay Area, he has worked with the San Francisco Symphony and, this summer, his "Alternative Energy" electrified the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. A scheduling conflict precludes his attending the opening performance, but he dubbed the OEBS his "home band" in a recent interview.
Alternating with bicentennial instrumental tributes to Verdi and Wagner (the "Overture to La Forza del Destino" and Siegfried's Rhine Journey from "Götterdämmerung," respectively), Graham will display her jewel-toned sound in Verdi's "Ritorna vincitor!" from "Aida" and the Immolation Scene from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung."
Morgan need not have selected the two arguably most dramatic arias from the era -- the sought-after, award-winning soprano is widely-recognized for her suspenseful style -- but the selections will offer an opportunity to hear a first-class operatic voice in far less than three hours.