01/18/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Celebrate Democracy at Your Symphony

The upcoming presidential inauguration reminds me of a concert I attended at the Paramount Theater just a few days after the election. It was a concert by the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra. When music director Michael Morgan appeared and announced that the theme of this opening night was "Celebrating Democracy," there was an immediate and thundering ovation. Before a single note was played, the concert took on a whole new life. I knew it would touch more parts of me, inviting me -- and the other 2,000 audience members -- to experience music through a lens of shared belief.

For a moment my thoughts turned to my fellow concertgoers. Who were these people anyway, who shared my passion for music as well as strong feelings about democracy? What were they thinking when they burst into applause? Then I wondered what Michael's simple two-word theme would mean for the music I was about to hear.

The program told a story of diversity as well as democracy. The music, all written by American composers, ranged from Copland's Clarinet Concerto to Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story to a work by Olly Wilson, an African American who lives in Oakland, and another by Californian Gordon Getty. (The living composers, by the way, won the applause meter contest!) It was all the more striking because Michael Morgan is also African American, as was a large portion of the audience in this richly diverse city. Visiting with the mayor after the concert (she is a subscriber), I learned that Michael had served on her transition team, another sign of how tightly woven this orchestra is with its community.

As I listened through this lens, the variety of the music reminded me that the concert hall is a place where all voices can be heard. And the message of West Side Story, in which the clash of differences leads first to tragedy but ends with hope for the future, seemed even more relevant than usual.

During intermission I heard people talking about how much they loved being there. I have heard about similar reactions from audiences at the Pittsburgh Symphony's Music for the Spirit concerts, where the orchestra collaborates with faith communities in the area to develop programs that celebrate the spirituality and universality of music. Half of these concerts are performed in community venues including houses of worship.

In communities across America, orchestral music is a cherished way to celebrate the holidays. Orchestras also have helped Americans cope with tragedy and loss, from 9/11 to the recent horrific events in Newtown, Conn. I am not suggesting that programs like these can or should replace the abstract beauty inherent in music. But providing a broader context is one important way an orchestra brings much closer to us all the life experiences and themes that matter to people.

I hope that, as orchestras continue finding ways to delve more deeply into the hearts of their communities in 2013, more people of all ages and from all walks of life will have the chance to experience the unifying and uplifting power of orchestral music.