A Sparkling, Generous Energy at the Oakland Symphony

The author of this blog, Julia Copeland, is a former ACSO Board member, the former Executive Director of Youth Orchestras of Fresno, and a professional violinist. Julia shares her thoughts and impressions from attending the Oakland Symphony's January 26, 2024, concert guest conducted by Kalena Bovell and featuring Samantha Ege on piano. 

On Friday night at the Oakland Symphony concert conducted by Kalena Bovell, with piano soloist Samantha Ege, I couldn’t avoid a moment of total happiness caused by what should probably be considered extraneous, non-music-related factors.

But you know - we all know - that all factors in music are music-related, and that all factors in classical music are vexed by questions about systemic bias and underrepresentation. So I am going to double down and tell you that I experienced a moment of pure joy caused by the fact that the two most powerful people on the stage that night—conductor and soloist—were both women, and both Black.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that the concert attire chosen by these women was fine and that Ege’s gold pleated gown was a knockout.

The mood in Oakland’s exquisite Paramount Theatre was jubilant from the get-go, before any musicians had so much as wandered onstage. As a first-time attendee, I got the sense that this was a hometown orchestra and that the community had a stake in its success.

I even enjoyed remarks offered from the stage by the orchestra’s executive director, Mieko Hatano. Such remarks can be a sore point with musicians and audience members, but Hatano, a spirited speaker, was offering important information about commissioned works, about the evening’s performers, about upcoming events—and about that table the League of Women Voters had set up in the lobby, where they were prepared to register voters all night long.

What a wonderful idea! Everyone! Steal this idea!

Also, steal this composer. Texu Kim’s Lila was weird and wild. Prefatory remarks from both Hatano and Kim helped us locate drumbeats meant to convey aspects of Korean shamanism. Also, honestly, a drumset is a salvation. If only the once avant-garde composers of my own century, the twentieth, had realized they could have used drumsets to prevent audience rigor mortis from setting in…but I should not be comparing. This is new new music. Plenty of rigor, and no noticeable mortis.

Also, steal this conductor! Not a joke. 2024 Sphinx Medal of Excellence winner Bovell—dedicated to community access and a nearly nuclear source of energy onstage—is presumably already on orchestral radar screens across the nation. If she is not on yours, do something. Now.

The evening was filled with all the energy and generosity that had been promised from its electricity-snapping start. I am using the term “generosity” because I feel that term truly characterizes what I experienced from the musicians onstage. There was a bighearted openness that came across the footlights to us as a completely unpretentious and honest love of music.

Here’s what happened: I felt included.

This is pretty huge, given that classical music has a reputation for exclusion. And I am speaking as a professional violinist, so believe me, I know.

I felt included in the music, and in the warmth and energy being radiated from the stage. But I also felt included in the audience. And I kinda got that whole bursting-with-pride thing going…cheering and yelling when prompted…just really getting into the mood of the moment, as if this was my hometown orchestra, even if only for a night as I visited the town.

In short, I felt like a stakeholder.

And that, my friends, is the way we should all be doing our art form.

Steal this playbook! 


Photo Credit: Top photo courtesy Joan Balter. Second photo courtesy Kalena Bovell on Instagram (@silvursmiles).


About the Author: After a career that included stints as a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra, the Mexico City Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Julia Copeland spent several years as a writer, columnist, editor, and English teacher before returning to music as an arts administrator. She is a co-founder, with conductor Thomas Loewenheim, of the iMAYO international festival in Bloomington, Indiana, and of the FOOSA Festival/Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy in California. The FOOSA Festival was part of her work as Executive Director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, where she spent fourteen years, and where she also founded and directed the El Sistema-inspired Access Violin Program. Copeland is a past board member of ACSO and continues to volunteer in various capacities for that organization. She currently serves on the boards of Fresno ASTA and the Fresno Arts Council.

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