Update (December 18, 2021): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name Kelly Hall-Tompkins. The error been corrected.
Michael Morgan, the music director of the Oakland Symphony, died on August 20, 2021, at the age of 63. His death was caused by complications from a kidney transplant that he had received the previous May. When I think about Michael, I am astonished to realize how he has affected me despite the fact that we were really just acquaintances.
I, along with many other Black Americans, read a profile of Michael in a 1989 article in Ebony Magazine titled “The Maestros: Black Symphony Conductors are making a name for themselves.” This article also featured profiles of James DePriest, Paul Freeman, Leslie Dunner, Tania León, and other notable Black conductors. In this brief profile Michael said, “Each generation of conductors paves the way for the next.” This is historically true, but Michael’s gift to us was that he inspired, influenced, and mentored classical musicians of color for over thirty years.
I first became aware of Michael when he was an assistant conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1986 to 1993. At that time, I was a student at Northwestern University, and I attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts frequently. I was in the audience in May 1987 when Michael stepped in for an ailing Georg Solti to conduct Ein Heldenleben and The Rite of Spring without rehearsal time with the orchestra. It was always thrilling to hear the CSO perform, but this occasion was unique and special. This was the classic “a star is born” moment that many of us have read about but rarely witness. Michael conducted the orchestra with assuredness, musicality, and a sense of purpose. It was a fabulous evening of music, and the sense of relief from the podium at the conclusion of the concert was palpable throughout the hall. For me it was especially gratifying and encouraging to see someone who looked like me performing at the highest level with one of the finest orchestras in the world.
Michael became the music director of the Oakland Symphony in 1991 and remained in this position until his death. He thoroughly enjoyed being ensconced in the Oakland community, frequently collaborating with local organizations to create an inclusive environment. The annual “Let Us Break Bread Together” concert featured a diverse array of musical styles featuring local musicians. The goal of creation of community through music was present throughout his tenure in Oakland. Michael said in a 2021 The Oaklandside interview, “Our primary question is ‘who’s not here?’ And we look around the room, and see who is not there.” He also stated in a 2013 San Francisco Chronicle interview, “To me, the notion of community building—of pulling various groups of people together—is at least as important as the music an orchestra plays.”
This outward look towards Michael’s community also led to Oakland Symphony’s educational programs, including Music for Excellence (MUSE). The MUSE program sponsored school visits by Oakland Symphony musicians as well as music lessons. While he thoroughly enjoyed working with young musicians, he was open-minded about music education’s role. In a 2013 SFGATE article he said, “I always say that the goal is not necessarily to train kids to be musicians . . . but if you talk to leaders of industry, many of them learned how to play instruments, and it does rub off on you. You learn how to learn things.”
Michael embraced the role of the orchestra as a reflection of its community, saying in a 2016 San Francisco Chronicle interview, “In Oakland, we’re very conscious of social justice issues . . . Oakland has always been about, and continues to be about, social change.” Many years prior to the current movement towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in orchestras, Michael was regularly programming music of diverse composers, affirming that diversity uplifts and expands the canon of orchestral repertoire.
Violin soloist and former member of the New Jersey Symphony, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, had a long fruitful musical relationship with Michael. In an article for Violinist.com, she writes, “Not only did I play my first Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as a soloist with him, but through his vast knowledge of the Black composers that many in the field are only now beginning to seek out, I discovered and played my first notes of symphonies by Florence Price, William Dawson, Olly Wilson, and contemporary composers such as Carlos Simon.”
What really strikes me about Michael Morgan is the importance of his presence—the presence of a Black man inhabiting spaces and positions where there are very few Black people. His excellence and desire to show that orchestras are relevant not only impacted the community of Oakland, but a whole generation of musicians of color. His career spanned multiple musical communities, conducting the world’s finest orchestras, conducting musicians in youth orchestras, and performing public school engagements. His work with musicians of color as music director of the Gateways Festival, as well as conducting the Sphinx Orchestra and Chineke! Orchestra, was truly invaluable to the musicians in those organizations. He made himself available for musicians seeking counsel and encouraged budding talents towards developing professional careers.
Damon Gupton, Principal Guest Conductor of the Cincinnati Pops (who also maintains an acting career) said in a Facebook post, “He was always encouraging of both of my career pursuits, supportive and inviting. He’d write me after seeing me on TV or in some movie as well as when I performed concerts or got new appointments. Congratulating. Proud.”
Michael Morgan was so present that you could say it was commonplace. It is refreshing to think of someone with such extraordinary gifts as normal and ordinary, given his willingness to broadly share his talents across communities, races, and types of ensembles.
Though Michael is no longer with us, his influence will be felt for many years to come. As Michael did, let us all look around the room and ask ourselves, “Who’s not here?” and then act to include and celebrate our diversity.