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Michael Morgan, Visionary Oakland Symphony Conductor, Dies at Age 63

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Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony Jan. 19 in a concert curated by W. Kamau Bell.
Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony Jan. 19, 2018 in a concert curated by W. Kamau Bell. (Photo: Courtesy of Oakland Symphony)

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.

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Morgan was born in Washington D.C. and began conducting at age 12. In addition to his duties with the Oakland Symphony, he also held the titles of artistic director of Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, music director at Bear Valley Music Festival and music director of Gateways Music Festival. He was music director emeritus of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, and sat on the boards of Oaktown Jazz Workshops and the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation.

“This is a terribly sad moment for everyone in the Oakland Symphony family.  We have lost our guiding father,” said executive director Mieko Hatano in a statement. “Michael’s plans and ambitions were set for several seasons to come.  He made his Orchestra socially authentic, demanded equality, and he made his Orchestra our orchestra.  He fashioned a unique, informed artistic profile that attracted one of the most diverse audiences in the nation.  His music reflected his beliefs: reverence for the past, attuned to the future, rooted in his adopted home of Oakland. His spirit will always guide the enduring future of the Oakland Symphony.” 

Correction: This story originally stated that Michael Morgan’s final performance was with the San Francisco Symphony on July 23 when it was actually at the Bear Valley Music Festival on July 29-Aug. 1.

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