Michael Morgan, whose Oakland East Bay Symphony has frequently distinguished itself with programs that depart from the tried and true, scored another coup over the weekend with a concert celebrating women.
The centerpiece of Friday's program at the Paramount Theatre was "A Woman's Life," a contemporary song cycle by composer Richard Danielpour featuring texts by award-winning poet Maya Angelou. With soprano Angela Brown as soloist, Morgan introduced the work to his audience in a radiant, fully committed performance.
It may have been a bit of a stretch to include Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" and Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 in Morgan's "woman-centered" scheme, although both works refer to female characters. Still, given the scant attention most American orchestras pay to women in their programming, the conductor's selections practically amounted to a revolutionary act. Either way, Friday's performances were sufficiently strong to excuse any thematic quirks.
Morgan lavished considerable care on "A Woman's Life," which sets seven of Angelou's poems in an attractive 25-minute score. Each poem depicts a different aspect of femininity, from childhood to maturity.Taken together, they present a kind of "Seven Ages of Woman," from the sing-song verse of "Little Girl Speakings" to the aftermath of loss in "Many and More." Angelou's texts lend themselves well to music, and Danielpour's conventionally tonal settings -- by turns tender,
Brown is a powerhouse. The soprano, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2004 in the title role of Verdi's "Aïda," boasts a large, resonant instrument that rises to ringing top notes. Although occasionally inaudible Friday in her lower register, she gave a richly expressive performance, effectively mining
There were a few rough spots at the start of the cycle. Balances were off, and Morgan overpowered the soloist, particularly in the brassy second song, "Life Doesn't Frighten Me. " From there, the sound improved, and the conductor brought his forces together dynamically, supporting Brown with a lustrous orchestral sound. The third song, "They Went Home," was lovely, with Brown's voice floating over the subtle contributions of brass and woodwinds. Best of all was "My Life Has Turned to Blue." Here, the soprano sang with particular flair, sounding poised and luminous over a beguiling backdrop of xylophone, harps and percussion.
Morgan also achieved impressive results in the performance of "Symphonie Fantastique" during the program's second half. The conductor strove for spare, transparent textures in this feverish paean to Irish actress Harriet Smithson, savoring the delicate colors and vivid sonorities of the first movement's interplay between strings and woodwinds. As the movement progressed, the orchestra bore down with swirling intensity, bringing the beauties of Berlioz's sound world into full bloom.
Morgan kept things moving throughout the performance. The waltzes of the second movement, "Ball," exuded charm, and Denis Harper's English horn solo in the "Scene in the Fields" approached the ideal. Although the Paramount's acoustics occasionally swallowed the sound of the low strings, the grim, sardonic "March to the Scaffold" and final "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath" were gripping.
Morgan introduced the "Leonore" Overture at a leisurely pace, letting the music simmer organically and gradually summoning the full measure of Beethoven's passion. The orchestra sounded robust. The woodwinds asserted themselves with clarity, the strings were warm and incisive, and the horns registered in firm, bright statements.
Fittingly, Friday's tribute to "A Woman's Life" honored a woman well-known to Oakland East Bay Symphony audiences. Executive Director Jennifer Duston recently retired after 17 years in the post. During her tenure, she guided the symphony through numerous achievements, including its recent merger with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland Youth Symphony to form East Bay Performing Arts. In his pre-concert remarks, Morgan praised Duston's many contributions to the organization.