In the weeks after the death of 36 people in Oakland’s devastating Ghost Ship fire last Dec. 2, flutist Arturo Rodriguez started composing “Requiem Without Words” in an effort to come to terms with the loss of several friends and colleagues. As a section leader, or “ambassador” in the Awesöme Orchestra Collective, he approached David Möschler about bringing the new work to the group.
The ensemble’s conductor and founding artistic director, Möschler immediately committed to the “Requiem,” and the orchestra presented the first section Aug. 1 at the Oakland Public Library. “When Artie asked if we would be interested in reading one of the movements, there was no question. That’s why you have an orchestra, to play things like that,” Möschler says. “We read the introit on National Night Out, and it was just a really well written piece of music.”
One year and a day after the Ghost Ship disaster, Awesöme Orchestra presents the official premiere of the first movement of Rodriguez’s “Requiem” as the emotional centerpiece of the collective’s year-end concert Sunday at Freight & Salvage. A work in progress that Möschler hopes to present in full in the coming months, the piece has evolved since the first reading, and “we have a chance to give it its full due,” Möschler says. “We’d decided to use this as an opportunity to come together, grieve and heal, and to celebrate the lives of people we lost, and people who live on.”
Since Möschler launched Awesöme Orchestra in May of 2013 the ensemble has played everything from Bach and Brahms to Björk and Bacharach, from Daft Punk and Green Day to Sondheim and the film music of Alan Silvestri. With monthly open rehearsals and various performances, some 2,000 musicians, professional players and skilled amateurs, have played in the orchestra, drawn by the camaraderie and the opportunity to explore such a wide array of material.
Sunday’s concert reflects the same catholic sensibility, opening with Nobuo Uematsu’s “One Winged Angel” from the hugely popular Final Fantasy VII video game. “It’s one of the most famous pieces of video game music of the last 20 years,” Möschler says. “It’s for orchestra and small chorus, which we’ll have with us. Uematsu was directly inspired by Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ as well as Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze,’ which sound crazy and derivative, but it’s a really fun piece to open a concert with.”
The program also includes Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s “Danzón No. 2,” a single movement piece that builds in intensity for 11 minutes, and mini-set of pieces associated with the late great songwriter Harry Nilsson. San Francisco vocalist Kendra McKinley performs Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” from the 1980 Robert Altman film Popeye (Robin Williams’ first starring role), and Harry Nilsson’s son Kiefo Nilsson, who celebrates his father’s legacy in Nilsson Sings Nilsson, performs “Life Line” from Harry Nilsson’s 1971 album The Point!
The concert closes with Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of selections from Porgy and Bess, a 14-minute medley “that ends on a note of optimism,” Möschler says. “We have one other surprise piece on there, a piece we haven’t played this year by one our favorite composers, but I don’t want to give that away.”
Berkeley can’t really claim Awesöme Orchestra for itself, but in many ways the city has played an essential role in nurturing the organization. As of January 2018, the ensemble will have played 55 open sessions “and I’m going to guess at least a third were in Berkeley,” Möschler says. In the first year the gatherings often took place in the Firehouse Arts Hangar and the Ed Roberts Campus. In October, the Orchestra presented film music at BAMPFA, “and we’d love to go back there,” Möschler says. And in the always dire search for rehearsal spaces, the orchestra has found an oasis in Berkeley’s Sports Basement, “an unlikely spot but they’ve got several large community rooms that are the right size for that they offer for free to community groups,” Möschler says. “We approached them and they’re all musicians, and they were great. We’re doing all the rehearsals for the Freight there.”
Sunday’s performance is Awesöme Orchestra’s third year-end concert, an event that provides an opportunity to revisit material performed earlier in the year and to raise money for the organization (the recommended ticket price is $30, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds). Möschler decided to organize the first annual celebration after polling his expansive collective “and what people said most often is we’d love to have a more traditional performance where we rehearse, something a little more formal but that still has the feeling of an open session. It gives us a chance to invite guests and really engage with the audience in a beautiful venue with comfortable places to sit.”
Awesöme Orchestra played its first year-ending concert in 2015 at the lamented American Steel Studios in West Oakland, and last year moved to the Freight with a grant from the Zellerbach Foundation. In under five years the collective has become a beloved Bay Area institution via various collaborations (including UnderCover Presents), recordings, and as an ongoing community building enterprise for legions of musicians.
Berkeley’s Lily Kaye Sevier, co-ambassador for the percussion section, was a reluctant participant at the first session. A busy freelancer who teaches at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, she can be found performing in the San Cruz and Monterey Symphonies, and in numerous musical theater productions, “which is how David and I met,” she says (she’ll be in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Ragtime that opens in February).
While Möschler had to drag her to the first open rehearsal, Sevier quickly found a home in the orchestra. “Now I’m so close with people in the group,” she says. “I’m a little more introverted but I showed up and had such a great time. Everyone was so nice. Classical music can be more uptight, which is always hard on me. It’s so refreshing to play and actually enjoy myself and not feel the same stress I do at work. I interact a lot more with the rest of the orchestra, not just my section. I love to be able to talk about life, rather than what mallets are you using.”
Recommended gigs: John Santos / Yissy García
Percussion maestro John Santos continues his revelatory Raices series at Freight & Salvage on Saturday with Unidad Latina, a cross-generational gathering of Latin music talent, including an all too rare performance by Cuban-born timbales great Orestes Vilató, a foundational figure in salsa through his work with the Fania All-Stars. He was a founding member of Santos’s Machete Ensemble, but has been keeping a low profile since Santos disbanded the Grammy-nominated group in 2006. Joining the percussion tandem are John Calloway, Bob Crawford, Anthony Blea, Saul Sierra, David Flores, José Roberto Hernandez, Manuel Constancio, and Fernanda Bustamante.
And over at Ashkenaz on Wednesday, Cuban drummer Yissy García (the daughter of Irakere drummer Bernardo García) makes her Bay Area debut as a bandleader with Bandancha. She’s made a powerful impression performing several times around the region in recent years with Jane Bunnett’s Maqueque, a band the Canadian soprano saxophonist/flutist assembled to showcase the rising generation of women instrumentalists in Cuba.