Michael Morgan '79, Bay Area Conductor and Arts Advocate, Dies at 63

Oakland Symphony music director championed lesser-known repertoire, emphasized the orchestra’s role in the community.

August 24, 2021

Erich Burnett

Michael Morgan.
Photo credit: courtesy Oakland Symphony

Michael Morgan recognized early what many never recognize at all: that each artist bears the responsibility for cultivating the next generation of artistry.

The longtime music director of the Oakland Symphony and a lifelong believer in the power of music to elevate communities, Morgan died August 20, 2021. He was 63.

“We have lost our guiding father,” the symphony’s executive director, Mieko Hatano, said in a statement as news of Morgan’s passing began to circulate.

Over the course of 30 years in Oakland, Morgan relished the dual nature of his role: to facilitate compelling performances of a broad range of repertoire—from well-known masters to unknown local composers—and to ensure that his orchestra reached out to its community at every turn. Through regular programming in the Oakland schools and innovative concerts that showcased the music of marginalized cultures, the symphony under Morgan became a model of outreach and education for music organizations everywhere.

He perpetually appealed to those on the margins of his world, in part because he had long felt like an outsider himself.

“Being a classical musician, being a conductor, being Black, being gay—all of these things put you on the outside, and each one puts you a little further out than the last one,” he told Georgia Voice in 2013, in advance of a guest appearance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “So you get accustomed to constructing your own world because there are not a lot of clear paths to follow and not a lot of people that are just like you.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Morgan was introduced to the piano at age 6, when his biologist father purchased one for the family home for $10. By 12, Morgan was conducting school and church orchestras, and soon after rose to the stand of the D.C. Youth Orchestra. He studied composition at Oberlin and at Tanglewood, where he learned from legendary conductors Gunther Schuller, Seiji Ozawa, and his longtime mentor, Leonard Bernstein.

Just one year beyond his Oberlin studies, Morgan catapulted into the spotlight in 1980 by winning the Hans Swarowsky Conducting Competition in Vienna; two years later, he assumed the role of Leonard Slatkin’s assistant conductor with the St. Louis Symphony. Also that year, Morgan made his operatic debut at the Vienna State Opera, in a production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. He later recounted that he hoped simply to escape the hall without being booed, but he ultimately was invited to return.

Morgan called the Vienna engagement “The most pretentious thing in my biography, which is full of pretentious things,” but it was also a welcome springboard to his role as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony—the first Black conductor appointed to a title position. There he served for five years, first under the baton of Georg Solti, then Daniel Barenboim. He became music director of the Oakland Symphony in 1991.

Resolved to avoid the itinerant life of many high-profile conductors, Morgan contented himself with building a vibrant and varied career almost entirely in the Bay Area. In addition to the Oakland Symphony, he was artistic director of the Oakland Youth Orchestra and served for 16 years as music director of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera. He was artistic director of Festival Opera for more than a decade and music director of the Bear Valley Music Festival. Since 1993, he also served as music director of the Gateways Music Festival, dedicated to supporting the professional development of musicians of African descent and to inspire communities through performance.

When Morgan traveled—to festivals, or to guest-conduct major orchestras in Atlanta and New York and elsewhere—he made sure to interact with each region’s schoolchildren, his mission to cultivate future musicians and audiences never relegated solely to his home turf. And wherever he went, he exalted the work of little-known composers when Mozart or Brahms could have sufficed.

“He launched new works by an entire generation of grateful composers,” Daron Hagen said of Morgan, who premiered a piece by the young composer in 1992—at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.

Unceasingly passionate in his day-to-day work, Morgan was also endlessly cheerful, and his ubiquitous good humor and trademark high-pitched laugh capably disarmed audiences and everyone else in his presence.

Lee Koonce ’82, president and artistic director of the Rochester, New York-based Gateways Music Festival, called Morgan’s death a tremendous loss for the international classical music community.

“I believe that his greatest legacy will be his honesty as a human being and as a musician, his fearlessness in the breaking of traditions, his ability to authentically connect the orchestra with the local community beyond the concert hall, and showing us a new model for what an American ‘maestro’ could be,” Koonce said. “If the United States had 20 more Michael Morgans leading major orchestras across the country, I suspect that all the conversations we’ve had over the years about the lack of diversity in classical music and its lack of relevance would be virtually nonexistent.”

As the arts world scrambled to reinvent itself amid the pandemic, Morgan continued the work he had done all his life. In 2020, he curated a series of virtual programs for the San Francisco Symphony that highlighted intersections between classical music and distinctive musical styles deeply rooted in the Bay Area: jazz and hip-hop, as well as sounds of China and Mexico.

“I tell people who are undertaking projects like this that they shouldn’t worry about trying to change the world,” he said at the time. “The simple fact of going from absolute zero to something means that this effort can have a disproportionate impact.”

Despite his outward resilience and charisma, Morgan lived a quiet life with his mother and sister. He suffered from chronic kidney disease since 1989, and he endured dialysis every day for seven years until undergoing a successful transplant in May 2021. Three months later, complications surfaced that resulted in a severe infection.

Morgan’s roommate at Oberlin was Steven Isserlis ’78, a cellist from Britain who went on to become a world-renowned soloist and chamber musician. To Isserlis and others at Oberlin, Morgan was known affectionately as “Mikey.” In a Facebook post shared shortly after Morgan’s death, Isserlis recounted his friend’s musicianship, his cutting wit, that unforgettable laugh, and the camaraderie that bridged continents throughout their lives.

“I can only hope that wherever he is now, he’s cackling with delight at the old friends he’s meeting—and getting together orchestras of angels to conduct,” Isserlis wrote. “Goodbye, Mikey—there will never be anyone like you.”

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