Oakland Symphony’s “Ghost Ship” Review – The Sound of Human Caused Disaster

Robert Sims, baritone
Spread the love

Michael Morgan, The Oakland Symphony’s loquacious conductor dropped his usual convivial approach to introducing Oakland Symphony concerts, exchanging light touch for a serious and silent mien. A Message from the Maestro in the printed Program said that, “we’ll honor the victims of the Ghost Ship fire with a cello concerto, as we connect what goes on at your symphony with what goes on in your city.” The occasion was a quasi-memorial service honoring the  deceased victims of the 2016 fire at the live-in artists community and events space. This past Friday evening at Oakland’s art deco Paramount Theatre, music was made in a more traditional concert venue, reflecting on the sources of disaster.

Paramount Theatre

In contrast to an “accident,”  a deleterious happenstance event  for which individuals or organizations bear no responsibility  for causation; in a human caused disaster causation, like 9/11, may be  traced to identifiable individuals and organizations, that may be held responsible. Of course, an event that was once viewed as fortuitous, like, climate change,  may, on further investigation and reflection, be found to have responsible agents. There are also mixed cases, with various combination of assigned blame  and fortuitous circumstances, such as the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. In addition, there are disputed cases, like the so-called “Normal Accident” of 3 Mile Island Nuclear Complex, where some observers identified causation too complex to assign specific blame while others pointed to  public policies promoting an inherently dangerous industry as the underlying cause. The Ghost Ship fire that killed 34 persons in an Oakland warehouse informal concert venue and sub-rosa artists living-working space may be expected to pass through all of the above interpretations, as well as  a determination made by the legal system .

Richard Marriott, Ghost Ship Concert composer

The smaller footprint of New York Soho loft spaces designed for small companies were  more easily translated into discrete loft  spaces, in contrast to the open floor plan of a former milk bottling plant. The Ghost Ship’s interior was divided by makeshift walls,  whose pathways were apparently well known to its inhabitants but not to occasional visitors and concert goers. Perhaps this explains the fact that only one of those killed in the fire was a Ghost Ship resident; the remaining 35 were attending an evening concert, featuring  100% Silk record label artists, headlined by Joel Shanahan,

Aka  Golden Donna – click-Golden Donna

The Transmogrification of Tragedy

The memorial opened with “Take Care of This House” repurposed from a failed Leonard Bernstein musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his last.  Each deceased victim was memorialized on screen with line drawings, ghost like images of the creative’s visage and brief identification as artist, musician,  Berkeley or San Francisco state student, entrepreneur etc. Although ages were not displayed, youth and new talents were the implication of the identifications, with most screens, showing two skills, indicating a multi-art sensibility.  


The second piece, Ghost Ship Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, specially commissioned to commemorate the tragedy included three movements, with a joyous opening representing the free spirited concert event, interrupted by the second movement’s deadly fire with its terrorized trapped victims suffocating by smoke inhalation. Lost in the maze of  a shambles of loft spaces, the piece concluded with a sad toned third movement, reeking tragedy. Golden Donna’s  smooth techno electronic sound, set off by discordant clanging punctuations,  was reflected in Matthew Linamen’s emotional cello performance, carrying the touching  storyline of Richard Mariott program music for disaster.

Brahms requiem, after the intermission, was a more formal, traditional response to the Ghost Ship disaster.

Patricia Westley’s beautiful soprano voice was clearly evident but  Robert Sim’s baritone was mostly overshadowed by Oakland’s powerful signature ensemble of symphony and choruses, including The  Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus, William Sauerland, Director and the Oakland Symphony Chorus. Lynne Morrow, Director.

Patricia Wesley, Soprano

Societal Challenge and Inadequate Response

The Ghost Ship’s two master tenants face a trial that could bring life sentences while  the building owners face numerous civil lawsuits but apparently no criminal liability. Beyond individual responsibility are the exigencies of lack of affordable housing and workspace for artists in the Bay Area and elsewhere. The city of Oakland is attempting to ease the shortage of work/living space for artists with a 1.7 million program but overall there is inadequate public, business and government response to an escalating crisis of Too Much Success.  A bourgeoning high-tech economy is creating new jobs beyond the current carrying capacity of the region to support housing and services for a supporting cast of public servants and blue-collar service workers, let alone a largely marginalized creative class. The Ghost Ship disaster brought to the forefront of public attention the fraught lives of many Bay area artists and musicians. For every senior established artist, like Joan Baez, ensconced in a well-deserved Woodside ambiance, there are many unknown and un-numbered emerging talents, some in perilous venues like the Ghost Ship. A looming environmental disaster of an earlier era, called forth a broad-based movement, led by UC Berkeley Chancellor  Clark Kerr’s wife, Kay Kerr and her peers, to Save the Bay from further encroachment while reviving its natural ecosystem. For further elucidation, See the PBS series, narrated by Robert Redford, in one of its periodic KQED showings kqed

The contemporary social disaster of homelessness, rent and housing poverty, exemplified by the Ghost Ship, has yet to generate sufficient regional leadership to address the crisis. A YIMBY (Yes in my backyard)  movement to accelerate housing development and the St Jose City Hall’s First Street Arts District and the Diridon compact urban development projects are creditable, yet partial efforts. Much as the special district that was established to save the Bay, a broader political framework, like the one that created New York City in 1898 is called for to make Greater Silicon Valley, a viable  social as well as economic entity. Rather than dividing California as suggested by some, the world’s fifth largest economy requires effective regional sub-units to create a world class social environment to match its peerless economic drivers. The latter lacks long-term viability without the former match and must also be accompanied by effective response to climate change. Ghost Ship transcendence requires the combined operatic talents of a Verdi and Bernstein to project California’s future, just as John Adams celebrated its glorious past in  Girls of the Golden West. Too many future talents may be eliminated by  human caused disasters that could have been averted  or constrained to migrate from the region due to unaddressed deeper causes of community under-development.

Photo Credit: Anthony Maureal

About the  Oakland Symphony


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.