OAKLAND -- This year's Oakland Youth Orchestra benefit gala comes with an added note of celebration as the organization that benefits its youth participants as well as children in the Oakland public schools marks its golden anniversary -- 50 years of producing great music and experienced musicians.

On Sunday, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension will be the scene of a benefit gala concert, dinner and live and silent auctions, with proceeds going toward the organization's education and outreach programs.

The evening's theme will be "Art Deco Roaring Twenties." The event will start out with a jazz-themed cocktail hour, move into a dinner and include auction items such as a wine cellar starter package, a Disneyland package and a week stay on Mexico's Isla Mujeres.

Michael Morgan, music director for the Oakland East Bay Symphony, conducts the Oakland Youth Orchestra. The orchestra is celebrating its 50th year with a
Michael Morgan, music director for the Oakland East Bay Symphony, conducts the Oakland Youth Orchestra. The orchestra is celebrating its 50th year with a gala benefit May 4. (Courtesy of Son Lu)

"We'll have music from the Youth Orchestra Jazz Ensemble and four classic cocktails, including a French 75 and Sidecar and a variety of handcrafted appetizers," said Leslie Marks, development director.

"The rooms will be decorated with beautiful art deco floral arrangements, and guests can bid on our silent auction items."

Once dinner is served, the limelight will shift to the talented young musicians, performing Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole" under Oakland East Bay Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan. Another piece, Rossini's "William Tell Overture" will be conducted by Ben Simon, a Youth Orchestra alum who now conducts the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra.

The event will also honor two alumni, Ben Simon and Jeff Beal, an Emmy Award-winning composer who has written many Hollywood scores, including for the Netflix series "House of Cards," which the orchestra will also perform under Michael Morgan.

"With this being such an important anniversary, we wanted to highlight some of the achievements the Youth Orchestra has made over the years," said Steven Payne, the Oakland East Bay Symphony's executive director. "Ben Simon and Jeff Beal will be able to tell guests about their experiences in the orchestra and how it influenced their professional lives. Each of them have had such significant contributions in the music field, and this is an opportunity for us to celebrate that, too."

Another important part of the evening will be the announcement by Morgan of the appointment of conductor, composer and educator Omid Zoufonoun as the new principal conductor of the Oakland Youth Orchestra.

"Omid Zoufonoun has long been a treasured member of the Oakland East Bay Symphony family," Morgan said.

"His gifts as composer are already known to our audience. What they have not seen is his great rapport with the youth orchestra students and the extraordinary musicianship that is on display when he conducts them. His imagination, humor and gift for communication will serve the entire organization extremely well, and I very much look forward to working with him in this new capacity."

For the past several years, the Oakland Youth Orchestra, Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland East Bay Symphony have been part of the same organization, one that focuses not only on youth within the orchestra but also on youth in Oakland.

Though celebratory in nature, the main purpose of the benefit gala is to raise funds for programs that bring Oakland youth to young people's concerts and send docents and musicians into the classrooms at 19 different Oakland schools, reaching close to 20,000 students.

"The other important program we support is MUSE, Music for Excellence -- that's really about getting kids started with instruments," Payne said. "We're also working on giving kids from the Oakland schools the opportunity to try and get into the Oakland Youth Orchestra, and we offer a number of scholarships for that."

The Oakland Youth Orchestra has records of more than 2,100 alumni since its beginning in 1964 and at present features 90 talented music students ages 12 to 22 from throughout the Bay Area. The organization's goal is to provide its youth members with an experience that will serve them throughout their education and beyond.

"Many of the skill sets they learn by performing this music and being part of such a well-crafted ensemble will then help them in others careers as well," Payne said.

"So for me, the purpose of the Youth Orchestra in this community is not only to provide these kids with an opportunity but to also be a shining example to other kids in the community of what kids can do when they bring a high level of focus and energy and commitment to an organization; to show what they can actually achieve."

FYI
Oakland Youth Orchestra benefit gala: 5 p.m., Sunday, Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, 4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland. Tickets are $125/person and can be purchased at www.oyo.org.