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Meet Kedrick Armstrong, Oakland Symphony’s 29-Year-Old New Music Director

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Kedrick Armstrong is the new music director of Oakland Symphony. He takes the podium in the 2024-'25 season, (Scott Chernis)

A young conductor smiles and holds a baton.
Kedrick Armstrong is the new music director of the Oakland Symphony. He takes the podium when the 2024-’25 season begins in October. (Scott Chernis)

Kedrick Armstrong hasn’t moved to Oakland yet, but he’s already a kindred spirit of the Town’s many artists and activists.

In a recent conversation about his new appointment as the Oakland Symphony’s music director, Armstrong beams when he talks about music as a way to empower everyday people and strengthen communities. And when the 29-year-old conductor gets going about public school music education — the heart of the Symphony’s public service mission — he’s coming from a place of hard-won wisdom from working to change a system that doesn’t always respect people who look like him.

“One of the things that truly excited me about this orchestra is their commitment not only to excellence on the stage, but excellence in music education and community work,” he says.

Today, the Oakland Symphony announced that Armstrong will take the helm at the orchestra, effective immediately, after a two-year nationwide search. He follows in the footsteps of Michael Morgan, the beloved, visionary conductor who led the organization for 30 years until his death in 2021 at 63 years old. In the coming months, Armstrong will relocate from Illinois, where he currently serves as the Knox-Galesburg Symphony’s creative partner and principal conductor.

Armstrong grew up in Georgetown, South Carolina and spent his young adulthood in Chicago, where his profile in the classical music world rose. Through the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he has appeared as a conductor, he mentored high school students on the city’s Southside — a Black community with a rich culture and history that, like Oakland, is often maligned in the national press.

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The Washington Post named Armstrong a conductor to watch in 2022. In May 2023, he completed his graduate studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he researched Black women composers, including some whose works had never been performed until he got his hands on their scores.

A conductor waves his baton as orchestra musicians look on,
Kedrick Armstrong conducts the Oakland Symphony in February 2024. (Scott Chernis)

Armstrong has guest conducted at the Chicago Opera Theater, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and three times at the Oakland Symphony. At his most recent Oakland appearance in February 2024, he led the orchestra in a world premiere of Here I Stand, an oratorio by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Dan Harder about the remarkable life of Black actor, singer, athlete and activist Paul Robeson, who dedicated his life to anti-racist, anti-fascist movements.

“I had the opportunity to meet some audience members and community members in that time, and the way that they embraced me as a queer Black man from South Carolina — stepping into this new place was so special and so warming to me,” Armstrong says.

For Armstrong, something that sets the Oakland Symphony apart from other orchestras around the nation is that “they have this flexibility in their playing and this respect that they give to everything, from Mozart to MC Hammer,” he says. “And for me, as a conductor that loves all of these different genres and repertoires, knowing that I already have a group of colleagues who are so behind that idea, style and approach of playing is just a dream of possibilities.”

The Oakland Symphony has also had people of color in leadership roles for decades, while most orchestras only began conversations about race in earnest after the George Floyd protests of 2020. (Prior to Michael Morgan’s tenure, Calvin Simmons took the helm at the Oakland Symphony in 1979, becoming the first Black leader of a major U.S. orchestra.)

“The thing that inspires me the most, especially with the Oakland Symphony, is knowing that there’s a legacy to stand on,” says Armstrong.

Armstrong spurred diversity reforms at his undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton Conservatory, when he penned a widely circulated open letter in 2020 calling for more diversity in its curriculum. Oakland Symphony’s music education programs, which serve 19,000 students every year, are particularly important to him. He remembers a time when he thought he had to give up his passion for gospel and jazz to be taken seriously as a classical musician. Now, at an organization that regularly blends genres, he wants to help foster an environment where young musicians, especially those of color, can be themselves.

“I’m constantly trying to figure out, how do we teach music with a person’s culture, with the music that they’re accustomed to?” he reflects.

Armstrong makes his first appearance on the Paramount Theatre’s podium as Oakland Symphony Music Director on Oct. 18, in a season kickoff that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the music nonprofit Living Jazz. The orchestra will perform music by Claude Debussy and Julia Perry — the first Black woman to have her work performed by the New York Philharmonic, in 1965 — alongside Living Jazz’s new commissions.

The wide-ranging season features titans of the classical music canon, including Bach, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky, as well as rising contemporary composers such as Shawn Okpebholo, an ethnomusicologist who studies the music of East and West Africa, and Alabama-born composer Brian Raphael Nabors, who’ll perform his own concerto for the Hammond organ.

While dreaming up future collaborations with jazz musicians and dance ensembles, Armstrong is excited to dive into Oakland’s culture when he moves here in late summer or early fall. A natural bridge builder, he spends his time cooking and hosting when he’s not at the podium. It’s only a matter of time before his Oakland kitchen table is filled with new connections who are just as community-oriented, curious and creative as he is.

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“I think there is such an easy thing for me as an outsider to look at Oakland and to buy into the external pictures that people paint about Oakland, about crime, about poverty,” he says. “But every corner I turn around here, I can’t help but see the beauty that is uplifted by the community.”


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