Oakland's adventurous maestro Michael Morgan dies at 63

Michael Morgan, musical director of Oakland Symphony , who during his 30 years in this role sought to introduce orchestral music to a wi...


Michael Morgan, musical director of Oakland Symphony, who during his 30 years in this role sought to introduce orchestral music to a wider audience, especially young people and people of color, died on August 20 in Oakland, California. He was 63 years old.

The cause was complications from an infection, the orchestra said. Mr Morgan had received a kidney transplant in May and had just taken over management last month.

As one of the few black maestros to lead a significant professional orchestra, Mr. Morgan was keen to diversify the symphony’s programming and its audience.

“My main goal,” he told The California Voice weekly in 1991 as he began his tenure in Oakland, “is to show the rest of the orchestral music field that you can make a difference. orchestra relevant and interesting to the community, especially to young black people who some may think are not interested in anything. “

He has made countless visits to schools in the area. He brought an eclectic roster of guest artists to the Paramount Theater, the orchestra’s original base, including Isaac Hayes in 2001 and Carlos Santana in 2010. He launched a program called “Playlist” in which guests including actor W. Kamau Bell and the union activist Dolores Huerta selected and presented the pieces to be performed.

Colleagues said Morgan was interested in more than just putting together an entertaining program.

“Michael was not afraid to tackle social issues head-on, and we (the Oakland Symphony) were the tools he used to bridge the gap between races and different political beliefs,” said Dawn Harms, co-concertmaster of the symphony, e-mail. “There was nothing quite like an Oakland Symphony concert with Michael at the helm. The audience was so incredibly diverse, gathered under one roof, rocking the Paramount Theater with such a happy and enthusiastic noise. “

A feature article about Mr. Morgan in The San Jose Mercury News in 2013 had a telling headline: “No one falls asleep when Michael Morgan is directing.”

Michael DeVard Morgan was born on September 17, 1957 in Washington. Her mother, Mabel (Dickens) Morgan, was a health researcher and her father, Willie, was a biologist.

He grew up in the city, where he started taking piano lessons at the age of 8. At 12, he was conducting his high school orchestra.

Mr. Morgan studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. At 22, he entered the Hans Swarowsky International Conducting Competition in Vienna – just for the experience, he later said – and ended up winning. This earned him the chance to conduct Mozart’s “The Abduction of the Seraglio” at the Vienna State Opera in 1982.

Georg Solti appointed him assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1986. During his seven years there, he also regularly conducted the Chicago Civic Orchestra and the Chicago Youth Symphony. And he started to develop a sense of mission.

“When I started my career, I wasn’t involved in the idea of ​​being a role model or increasing the number of minorities in the field,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “ However, I realized that someone has to take responsibility. “

Mr. Morgan has been a guest conductor with many major American orchestras, as well as with the New York City Opera, the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and the Washington National Opera. When he directed the New York Philharmonic in 1992, news accounts said he was only the fifth black conductor to do so.

At the time, he told the New York Times that he felt his run was both a help and a hindrance.

“I have a very nice little career now,” he said, “but I also know that sometimes it’s because it has been to an organization’s advantage to have me, an Afro- American, around me. I see what others my age are doing, and that there are more star-studded careers than I have no doubt I would have if I weren’t black.

Lack of diversity has long characterized the world of classical music. A 2014 study found that only 1.8% of top-set players were black and only 2.5% were Latino.

Mr. Morgan’s last two years in Chicago overlapped with his tenure in Oakland. At that time, he was fully determined to get more young people, especially black youth, interested in orchestral music.

“It could add one more piece to the puzzle of their lives,” he told The California Voice in 1991.

A highlight of any season in Oakland was Mr. Morgan’s annual “Let Us Break Bread Together” concert, held at the end of the year and featuring a musical cornucopia that could include gospel singers, choirs of all kinds, a klezmer group and high school students. Each year had a theme, and the range was wide – the music of Pete Seeger in 2014; Frank Sinatra the following year; music related to the Black Panthers the following.

“In Oakland, we are very aware of social justice issues,” Morgan told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016. “Oakland has always been and continues to be about social change.

James Hasler, chairman of the symphony orchestra’s board of directors, said outlook defined Mr Morgan.

“His vision of orchestras as service organizations was a beacon at the local and national level,” he said in a statement. “This vision is his legacy.

Mieko Hatano, executive director of the Oakland Symphony, has pledged to pursue Mr. Morgan’s vision.

“Michael challenged us to speak directly to our community,” Dr. Hatano said via email. “’That’s not what we’re talking about,’ he said. “It’s who’s in the room when you take care of it.” He was not a conductor who also had a social conscience. For Michael, it was one and the same. And that’s how the Oakland Symphony will continue.

Mr Morgan, who lived in Oakland, is survived by his mother and sister, Jacquelyn Morgan.

In late July, Mr. Morgan made an appearance as guest conductor with the San Francisco Symphony, delivering a gripping program that included an unrecognized composer, Louise farren, and a hint of 1920s jazz.

“For the San Francisco Audience”, Joshua Kosman wrote in a review in The Chronicle, “the whole evening has been like a little burst of vitality across the bay”.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Oakland's adventurous maestro Michael Morgan dies at 63
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