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Speaking to the Times

Area symphonies continue to diversify their programming.

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If you haven't been to the symphony hall lately, you might be surprised to find how much things have changed. Today's music directors are finding innovative ways to make the music speak to our times — and give contemporary composers equal time with their predecessors.

In the East Bay, three regional orchestras are starting their seasons with a difference, offering nuanced programs often built around new works. Music directors Michael Morgan of the Oakland Symphony, Donato Cabrera of the California Symphony, and incoming conductor Joseph Young at the Berkeley Symphony all have promising seasons in store.

Morgan, Oakland's music director since 1990, has been a leader in innovation, and as he prepares to launch his 29th season at the Paramount Theatre, the conductor said he's always programmed the orchestra's concerts with his audience in mind.

"All I'm trying to do is reflect my community," Morgan said in a recent interview. "I program to try to include everyone, and you have to have a real variety of music to do that."

Morgan's season opener, Oct. 11 at the Paramount, illustrates the point. Titled "Hot as Hell/Cool Jazz," the program includes Boito's Prologue to Mefistofele, new works by composer and jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, and Suite Elemental by Oakland's own Josiah Woodson.

One of Morgan's most successful innovations has been the Playlist series, which brings people he admires — writers, thinkers, and civic leaders — to the Paramount stage to talk about and play the music they love. Past Playlist events have included writer-performer W. Kamau Bell and labor organizer Dolores Huerta; later this season, Kaiser-Permanente executive Bernard Tyson will join Morgan and the orchestra. "He has such a commitment to music," Morgan says of Tyson, "gospel, R&B — whenever he gives a presentation, he always uses music to illustrate his points."

During his tenure, Morgan has presented artists rarely seen on classical programs: audiences are still talking about his collaborations with Isaac Hayes, Carlos Santana, and others. He's fully committed to bringing women — still woefully underrepresented at classical concerts — into the mix. Later this season, he'll present music by contemporary Korean-American composer Jean Ahn, and pioneering American composer Amy Beach.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Our audience skews younger," the conductor said. "This audience has always been trained to like variety in concerts. It brings in younger people — but also those who don't usually go to concerts."

In Walnut Creek, Cabrera has re-vamped the California Symphony in similar ways. Since assuming the orchestra's music director post in 2013, the conductor has spiced programs with new works as a matter of course.

One of the organization's long-running programs is the Young American Composer in Residence program. Established by Cabrera's predecessor, conductor Barry Jekowsky, the program commissions new works from its resident composers, developing their scores in readings and rehearsals over a period of months, then presenting them as world premieres. Past resident composers — including Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts and Rome Prize winner Pierre Jalbert — have gone on to major careers. Cabrera will return to Puts' Flute Concerto as part of the Symphony's program this November.

Currently holding the title of composer in residence is Katherine Balch, who has already premiered two new works under Cabrera's direction; the California Symphony will introduce her Cantata for Orchestra and Three Voices as part of its March program. Cabrera has demonstrated a strong advocacy for contemporary music; the California Symphony opens its 2019-20 season Sept. 14-15 at the Lesher Center for the Arts with Gabriela Lena Frank's La Centinela y la Paloma, which imagines iconic artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at a Day of the Dead celebration. Music by Beethoven and Mahler complete the program.

Berkeley Symphony, meanwhile, embarks on a new era this fall. Joseph Young, named the organization's new music director earlier this year, arrives in Berkeley for his first concert with the orchestra on October 24 at Zellerbach Hall. Young succeeds conductor Joana Carneiro, who succeeded Berkeley's longtime music director, Kent Nagano. Carneiro resigned from the post in 2018.

Young, who comes to Berkeley from the Peabody Conservatory, where he is artistic director of Ensembles, has also served as Assistant Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. In his first official program as music director, he'll conduct works by Beethoven, Ravel, and the late Berkeley composer Olly Wilson; later in the season, he'll present contemporary composers Bryce Dessner, Xi Wang, and Derrick Spiva, Jr. Stay tuned.

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