Oakland Symphony performs at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Credit: Credit Leilani Lei

The Oakland Symphony is kicking off its 90th anniversary on Friday, Oct. 13. The concerts, which run through May 17 of next year, will be led by six guest conductors—one of whom will be named the symphony’s permanent music director and conductor next spring. 

This is the third season led by guest conductors since the passing of Michael Morgan on Aug. 20, 2021. Morgan held the post of music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony for nearly three decades.

This year’s concerts will mainly spotlight women conductors, including women of color such as South Korea-born Shiyeon Sung, Panamanian American Kalena Bovell, and Jeri Lynne Johnson.

“We’ve always been focused on featuring underrepresented people. We want folks to come here and be able to see themselves in all different ways,” said the symphony’s executive director, Mieko Hatano. 

The eventual permanent director and conductor will be selected from the pool of this season’s guest conductors, said Hatano. Having various guest conductors over the past couple of seasons, she added, has been an interesting experiment for the organization and the orchestra’s players. 

“Before Michael Morgan had passed, there had not been a guest conductor in two decades,” she said. “The last few years have been important for [members of the orchestra and the organization] to see and work with other conductors.”

Whoever is ultimately chosen, she said, will need to embody the organization’s commitments to social justice and celebrating Oakland’s diversity. Hatani cited the legacy of “artivism” instilled previously by Morgan and the director who preceded him, Calvin Simmons, who became the first Black conductor of a major orchestra when he joined the Oakland Symphony in 1978.

“This isn’t about this person filling Michael’s shoes, but the opportunity to stand on his shoulders,” she said. “It is huge to be a part of this community, to be a civic leader and artistic collaborator across the city with all of the incredible artists that exist here in Oakland. It’s critical.

“The art in Oakland always speaks to our values and purpose,” added Hatano. “Our concerts are our artivism.”

One of the ways the Oakland Symphony expresses its values is through its Playlist concert series, which is returning this year. Each Playlist show honors a special guest who appears onstage to share and discuss the songs that have inspired them.

The next Playlist show on Friday, Oct. 21, will celebrate activist and educator Angela Davis. The concert and talk will be hosted by comedian and social commentator W. Kamau Bell, himself a 2018 Playlist honoree.

Oakland Symphony attendance hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels

According to Hatano, attendance in the past two seasons has not achieved pre-pandemic levels, something she attributes to some symphony patrons still being fearful of COVID. 

Mieko said the Paramount Theatre has updated its ventilation system to maximize air filtration and circulation throughout the venue, and the Oakland Symphony offers “socially distanced” sections for community members who’d like to remain masked and have more distance between themselves and other people. 

“That might be something that not everybody knows about,” she said. “We’ve made special accommodations so that those folks don’t have to stay isolated in their homes; they can come and enjoy a concert.” 

Orchestra members still take COVID tests before each concert as a precaution, she added. 

Mieko is also wary of the impact that the constant news of crime in Oakland can have on attendance and hopes it won’t deter people from going out to experience the symphony and all of the other art forms that Oakland has to offer. 

“Come and experience the symphony, and you’ll get it. There’s only so many words you can use to describe it,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, but the crime,’ but when you’re here, attending events, being a part of the community, it’s just a different vibe.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.