Michael Morgan, the longtime music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony, died on Aug. 20 at age 63, his publicist announced today. He passed away at Kaiser Permanente hospital after being admitted last week for an infection, three months after undergoing a successful kidney transplant.
Morgan made his mark on the Oakland Symphony with his boundary-pushing programming and passion for education and outreach. Always one to make classical music accessible to new audiences, he invited comedian W. Kamau Bell and activist Dolores Huerta to curate “playlists” for the orchestra to perform, interjecting the canon with songs by John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix.
As one of the few Black and openly gay conductors in the country, Morgan made inclusive programming standard at the Oakland Symphony—well before other orchestras began to grapple with racism in the wake of last year’s protests. His “Notes From...” concert series celebrated the music of Native American, Korean, Vietnamese and LGBTQ+ composers. And as the host of the Currents video and podcast series from the San Francisco Symphony, he examined the cross-pollination of classical music with genres as varied as hip-hop and traditional Chinese music.
“Our primary question is ‘who’s not here?’ And we look around the room, and see who is not there,” Morgan told Oaklandside earlier this year, describing his vision.
One of Morgan’s last public appearances was as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall on July 23. He led the orchestra through a performance of works by overlooked French composer Louise Farrenc and the 1920s jazz classic “Charleston” by James P. Johnson. “He’s made [the Oakland Symphony] a vibrant hotbed for innovative programming, combining a judicious helping of the standard repertoire with music from a wide array of less familiar sources—including, in recent seasons particularly, works by female composers who have too often been left out of the historical narrative,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman in his review of the concert.