‘Requiem Sinfónica’ Honors Ghost Ship Victims with Music and Hope

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A man in a red shirt stands among an orchestra, with members holding various instruments
Composer Arturo Rodriguez at Awesöme Orchestra's End-of-Year Concert in 2019. (Dave Weiland)

In the late hours of Dec. 2, 2016, a fire swept through the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland and claimed the lives of 36 people — a loss that left friends, families and the Oakland artist community confused and hollow. Angry and disheartened at the lack of answers and accountability following the tragedy, flutist and composer Arturo Rodriguez began developing Requiem Sinfónica: A Requiem Without Words, a commemorative nine-movement orchestral suite that debuts in full on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Malonga Casquelourd Center in Oakland.

For Rodriguez, the process of writing the requiem mirrored his restlessness about the tragedy. Melodies and themes floated in and out of his head. Unrefined echoes of cello and lower bass notes appeared like shadows, looming overhead as he tried to jot them all down. As Rodriguez contemplated the form of the musical requiem, where the journey of souls toward paradise is traditionally explored through lyricism, he opted to forego a choir and focus on the instrumentation.

“My work is supposed to represent the silencing of voices. I don't know what their last words were,” Rodriguez said. “I can only imagine what they were thinking to themselves. So in a way, this music is their thoughts in musical form: it's their acceptance, their trauma, their anger, hate, every emotion.”

With the support of fellow members from Awesöme Orchestra Collective, a nonprofit that hosts open music-reading sessions to make orchestral music and performance more accessible, Rodriguez hopes to highlight the sense of hope and family he’s gained from connecting with musicians and family members personally impacted by the tragedy.

“It's so beautifully humanizing, the way that they love each other and look out for each other. I think, because the music is so involved, I became involved,” said Rodriguez. “It was an opportunity to really become invested in something that was not myself and my own musical exploration. It was also like, ‘What do I want to tell the families with this music? How do I want to express my gratitude to them?’”

A room of symphonic musicians plays with music stands and instruments
Awesöme Orchestra members rehearse ‘Requiem Sinfónica.’
(Courtesy Arturo Rodriguez)

Through nine movements, Rodriguez layers various percussion, brass, woodwind and strings into lush musical scenes that depict coming to terms with death, and a journey toward peace. David Möschler, Awesöme Orchestra artistic director and Requiem Sinfónica conductor, explains that many of the musicians in the 65-piece ensemble have a personal connection to the fire, and have been rehearsing arduously to perfect Rodriguez’s complex composition.

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“The music requires a lot of endurance from the players because of its length. Because of the wide range of eclectic, stylistic influences, the music can switch really quickly from one mood to another,” said Möschler. “Any of the players will tell you, it's not a piece to show up and just sort of sightread. It really requires focus and knowing how it goes, and the style and the sound.”

Rodriguez spent over three years revising and workshopping the 90-minute requiem, with the entire process spanning six years. And as the various musical elements shifted, his intentions evolved.

“I'm starting to look at it [Requiem Sinfónica] as an ask to our political leaders and social leaders to allow us to have more of a voice,” said Rodriguez. “What does a safe artist's space look like? How do we take care of the people that essentially create the culture that life is based on? These are questions that I want answered.”

On Saturday, the concert hall will fill with the low hum and vibrations of tuning instruments. Swirling with these sounds will be anticipation, grief, celebration and hope — and as family and friends hold one another, their loved ones will continue to live on in the music all around them.

'Requiem Sinfónica: A Requiem Without Words' premieres Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts in Oakland. Attendance is free. In-person seats are limited; a livestream link is available upon RSVP. Details here.