Istanbul Connection performed at Brooklyn Basin on July 30, 2021. Credit: Bernadette LaNoue

The roller skaters didn’t seem phased by the Andalusian scene manifesting on the stage by Rocky’s Market, barely pausing as they glided behind flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz while she executed a series of percussive, clave-inflected foot maneuvers. The sold-out audience, however, was rapt despite the sailboats traversing the estuary in the background and the glorious view of San Francisco behind the Alameda skyline. 

Even without artists pouring out their souls, Brooklyn Basin makes a hell of a first impression. While construction continues on the massive housing development along Oakland’s waterfront, located next to the Jack London District, the park and adjacent open space surrounding the historic docks has emerged this summer as the East Bay’s most inviting outdoor venue. Still something of an Oakland secret, the concerts have been making the most of the balmy weather and spectacular setting. Brooklyn Basin proves the saying: if you build it, they will come—artists, dancers, comedians, salseros and soneros, soul belters and Afrobeatizans, aspiring jazz cats, and symphonic string players. 

While Oakland-native Corinne Kinczel describes herself as a passionate devotee of live music, she didn’t envision concerts as part of the mix when she opened Rocky’s Brooklyn Basin in the fall of 2020 as a market and to-go restaurant. “It wasn’t initially in the plan,” she said. “But because we have the space, I wanted to activate it.” 

Working with her high school buddy from Bishop O’Dowd, former flamenco dancer Bernadette LaNoue, they started figuring out how to put the space to use. The rising pandemic quickly put the kibosh on the initial effort to present music in October, and it wasn’t until April that they started up again. 

“I reached out to Melissa Cruz, who’s an incredible person and dancer,” said LaNoue, a pre-kindergarten teacher for Oakland Unified. “She’s also in three other bands as a drummer, and she was able to pull in a lot of amazing artists who have a following.”

Starting with Cruz, who presents bands and a revolving cast of flamenco artists on Fridays, they assembled a team of collaborators to keep the space jumping. Veteran actor, writer, dancer, and comic Holly Shaw brings in stand up comedians on Saturdays. 

Longtime Latin music champion Stephanie Eby and percussionists Robert Wallace and Javier Navarette have been presenting Afrobeat, Brazilian, and Cuban music on Sunday evenings. While the shows are ticketed via Eventbrite or admission at the door, the outdoor setting allows passersby to pause and take in performances or to casually roll by. Kids 12 and under are free.

“On Sunday afternoons we’ve been doing wine tasting and jazz—performances that are free to everybody,” Kinczel said. “The musicians are these exceptional teens, and we pay them a stipend. The grown-up acts sell their own tickets, and we usually sell out every weekend.”

Cellist Rebecca Roudman’s rock-grass band Dirty Cello played one of the first concerts in May, and some of her Oakland Symphony compatriots decided to check out the scene. Mieko Hatano, the Oakland Symphony’s executive director, came along to see the show and struck up a conversation with Kinczel and LaNoue.

“We made a connection and started talking about what they envision for the space,” Hatano said. It was a direct line from that initial encounter to the Oakland Symphony’s four-concert SummerStage series at Brooklyn Basin, which features symphony musicians in one-time-only configurations performing site-specific repertoire. 

The free series kicks off with a 35-piece chamber orchestra on Aug. 19 performing Beethoven Begins, which will be Michael Morgan’s first time conducting Beethoven’s First Symphony. Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville and a symphony from pioneering Black composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges are also on the program.

The Aug. 26 event features a 16-piece brass ensemble, and on Sept. 2 soprano and San Francisco Opera mainstay Shawnette Sulker will join a collection of 19 symphony musicians performing Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and wind serenades by Mozart and Dvořák. The series concludes Sept. 9 with a 35-piece ensemble performing the works of teenage upstarts, including the First Symphony by 15-year-old Felix Mendelssohn and the Bassoon Concerto by 18-year-old Mozart (featuring the Oakland Symphony’s principal bassoonist Deborah Kramer.)

The programs get the symphony musicians back to work, “and from a practical standpoint, it’s a warm up to our big season in October,” Hatano said. “They’ve gone more than 15 months without being able to play together.”

Parking is limited so Kinczel recommends carpooling or ridesharing. “People can bring their own chairs and blankets, and there will be some seating provided,” Hatano added. “The market has prepared food. We’re expecting 200-250 people. I want everybody to know about it. It’s a really large, comfortable space.”

Kinczel is committed to using the space as a cultural resource while weather allows this year, but the current performance area might not be available in the future. The space next door isn’t leased yet, and there’s no guarantee a new tenant will be on board with performances taking place on their doorstep. “But I’m really hoping that whoever goes in will see this art scene and want to continue it,”Kinczel said.

What makes the Rocky’s Market performances an expression of Oakland at its best isn’t just the organic way it took shape or the welcoming vibe cultivated by LaNoue and Kinczel (whose great grandmother helped found the San Francisco Symphony). They both immediately recognized that the setting called out for cultural communion, and they’ve made a point of working with artists who share a multi-generational sensibility that encompasses the past as well as the future. “It hit me like a ton of bricks the first time I saw it, and the view never gets old,” LaNoue said. “The pull of the water gives me chills. There’s something very special there, and I take it so personally that these artists get the vision. You want to expose youth and people of the community to this amazing art and take care to honor the ancestors.”

Click here for a schedule of upcoming performances outside Rocky’s Market at Brooklyn Basin.