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Longtime choral conductor Lynne Morrow steps up to conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony

  • March 14, 2013

By Serena Valdez
Bay Area News Group

Choral conductors typically don't conduct an orchestra; they prepare the chorus before the show, and an actual orchestral conductor stands at the podium on the big night.

But longtime Oakland Symphony Chorus director Lynne Morrow, 58, isn't your typical conductor. She has the opportunity to expand her skills at the Oakland East Bay Symphony's presentation of "Sky Above, Sea Below" on Friday, leading both the orchestra and her chorus in Gabriel Fauré's Requiem.

Held at the Paramount Theatre, this concert marks her debut conducting the Symphony, which, she says, is a very big deal.

"I'm really excited; it's going to be so much fun," Morrow said last month. "I'm nervous, of course, but I think I'm probably more nervous about the rehearsals than the actual performance, but that's how it goes."

Aside from her duties as the director of two programs at Sonoma State -- the Opera and Musical Theatre Program and the Vocal Program -- she is also the music director of two -- yes, two -- choruses: Oakland's and the Berkeley-based Pacific Mozart Ensemble.

Being a conductor takes a lot more skill than merely standing at the podium, dancing in time to the music and waving a baton around. It requires a level of expertise, concentration and presence to be a great conductor.

"One of my teachers at Indiana University said, 'When you conduct music, you must know everything.' And she wasn't kidding," Morrow said. "You have to know everything about timing, the history of music, about the orchestra, conducting."

Morrow graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor of arts in music. She then went to Cal State East Bay to get a master's in choral conducting, then earned her doctorate at Indiana University in choral conducting.

Rehearsing recently with the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Morrow meets each of those exemplary conductor qualifications. When something isn't quite right, she stops the group to explain how to fix pitch issues or hit certain syllables in the song with linguistic perfection.

"What's wonderful about Lynne is she can address the variety of levels in the group," said Linda Tipner, a chorus member who is also secretary of the board of directors for East Bay Performing Arts.

"She's an amazing teacher regarding technique, and she always tells us, 'The music is not on the page, it's in (your heart).' "

Morrow also adds historical context, explaining the emotion and the intent behind the Requiem.

"Lynne has a level of scholarship that she brings to everything she does," said Oakland East Bay Symphony music director Michael Morgan. "She always puts the rest of us to shame with the historical background she has."

And she does all that as she conducts. As her right hand keeps time and her left hand shows everything else from pitch to articulating the notes, Morrow uses every muscle in her body as a vehicle, interpreting the music to the chorus.

Her knees bend as she gathers the music with her arms and the chorus builds momentum. Even her facial expressions dance with the music. It's truly a skill.

Born in Berkeley, Morrow was musically influenced by her late uncle Charles Darden, the founding conductor of the Berkeley Free Orchestra. Since they were but eight years apart in age, he was like an older brother to her.

"We'd be doing stuff together, and I'd just want to do whatever he did," Morrow recalled.

She was 4 years old when she started mimicking his instrumental choices. When he played the piano, she played. When he played the French horn, she played. When he played the viola, she played.

It wasn't until high school that she dabbled in conducting and decided to make a career out of it -- although at Stanford, she originally chose medicine before switching her major to music.

For 13 years, she also had a job as a computer programmer, because as a mother of three girls, "I figured kids can't eat art, so I had to do something," she said.

It wasn't until her oldest, now 33, was in high school that she made music a full-time career.

For her upcoming concert, Morrow will be dedicating Fauré's Requiem, a Mass for the dead, to the memory of Darden, who died last month.

"The Requiem has a warm, rich sound, and I do love French music," she noted. "It's interesting, chromatic and harmonically beautiful."


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