The Mindful Provocateur: Conductor Michael Morgan in Strange Times

Mark MacNamara on November 6, 2018
Music Director and Conductor Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland Symphony for the last 28 years, is a particularly mindful provocateur these days. His horses are cooling.

In 1986, in a more restrained era, he was less restrained, and along the way became the first black titled conductor in the history of the Chicago Symphony. (In 1933, Margaret Bonds [1913–1972] was the first black soloist to appear with the orchestra.) Sir Georg Solti chose Morgan to be his assistant conductor, and the under-maestro needed no direction on using his position to “mitigate” the symphony’s relationship with black Chicago.

Georg Solti

“To the extent I could,” Morgan told us the other day over coffee at the Bicycle Coffee Company on Jack London Square, “not that I’m the ideal representation of black anything.”

For seven years, until 1993, he went around Southside schools persuading anyone who would listen that, whatever they thought about weird music and whites in black tie, they were welcome at the symphony gates, and classical music could play a role in their lives just as it had for him.

“I never said it’s the only music you should listen to; I said it’s one genre of music you might listen to.”

Nor was Morgan so restrained when, some years ago, he’d be invited down to the deep south, which, by the way, he dearly loves, especially Alabama — both the people and the orchestras. He can hardly explain it, but there’s a warmth and a graciousness, a sweetness if you will; it’s not all red-state hillbillies in their F-150s pulling rebel flags, shotguns in the window rack.

The anti-maestro is no longer interested in going on those music director searches, especially as he put it, “when everybody wants to hire a fetus. I’m too old.” But in those days when he did go around, he was always very frank with administrators about what they were getting into, both for themselves and for him: “Do you really want to consider hiring a black conductor, because I don’t want to get up every morning feeling like Rosa Parks. That’s just not of interest to me.”

One orchestra he visited, and won’t name, was clearly not, to his mind, the proper face for its noble city. It definitely needed a housecleaning, which Morgan found out conducting Ravel’s Bolero one night in a group filled with past-their-primers, very nice people, suitable if only they moved down a chair or two, but as it was they were the soloists.

“It was like going through a burn unit,” remembers the Maestro. “It was seriously horrifying.”

He told the administrators the situation and respectfully declined the opportunity — “not because there would have been hostility to it, but if your fundraising comes from old money, which, why don’t we just say, their relationship with outsiders and especially with people like me, that relationship is uneven. I didn’t want them to have to work with that.”

The Mission

Michael Morgan | Courtesy Oakland Symphony

For the moment, Michael Morgan — the provoker with a rabbi’s heart — is waiting to see how things play out, at every level. He’s filled with trepidation about the White House world of Oz and he’s deeply worried that Oakland is losing its character, much the way San Francisco has lost its character, because so many artists have been priced out.

“For us, as an orchestra,” he said, “we constantly have to reintroduce ourselves because there’s this endless stream of people who don’t know who we are.”

Morgan is also as concerned as ever about the tiny number of blacks in the classical music world. According to the most recent report from the League of American Orchestras, in 2016, minority group participation onstage between 1980 and 2014 has changed dramatically, increasing fourfold, but those musicians have been largely from Asian backgrounds. The number of nonwhite musicians is still “extremely” low: around two percent by Morgan’s estimation.

Nevertheless, he’s decided that right now is not the best time to personify, too forcefully, the agent of change; these days being a black conductor in Oakland is enough. And he added somewhat cautiously: “I enjoy focusing on the challenges I have rather than adding more.”

Despite all the turmoil and uncertainty, the conductor retains his go-lucky persona and wicked wit, and at 61 remains relentlessly optimistic about life. And he’s certainly open to any new proposals to build upon his conviction that an orchestra should serve as a “community-building mechanism.”

For its part, the Oakland Symphony is riding high just now, with both a new executive director and community engagement representative.  Also, ticket sales have been going up, particularly since the 2016 election.

“My theory about that,” said Morgan, “is that we’ve always talked about social justice issues, and after the election our community wanted to be brought together and assured; so that we could collectively think, ‘OK, it’s them, it's not us. We’re OK; it’s the rest of the country that’s gone off on a tangent.’” 

W. Kamau Bell and Michael Morgan | Credit: Omid Zoufonoun


Meanwhile, Morgan presses ahead, however gently, in his search for new understandings of music, for some new relevance. For the unexpected. On November 16, he’s dedicating a concert to “the artists and dreamers” lost in the Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 people in an Oakland warehouse in December 2016. The evening will include the world premiere of Richard Marriott’s new cello concerto, commissioned for the occasion. Also, Brahms’s German Requiem.

Dolores Huerta brings her playlist to the Oakland Symphony

And then there’s the maestro’s Playlist Series, which began last January with activist-comedian W. Kamau Bell’s favorite music (from any genre). Coming up in February, the iconic labor organizer Dolores Huerta and her playlist. Morgan has gotten interest for the series from Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson. He’s hoping to draw in Alice Waters and then, a dream come true: Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr — and before the team leaves Oakland for San Francisco at the beginning of the 2019–2020 season.

Morgan has been much heartened by his Playlist series. “Kamau was on fire that evening he came, but of course there were some who thought he was too jarring. But that’s OK. If you’re casting a wide enough net, not everybody is going to like what you catch and that’s OK. And if people say, ‘well, I’ll skip the playlist concerts, but I’ll come to all the rest,’ that’s OK too.”

This is partly the reason Morgan has stayed in Oakland for all these years. He admits he doesn’t think he could fit in many other places, but more than that he’s flourished with the opportunity to experiment. “I stay because I get to do these really interesting juxtapositions. Imagine, last March, having Kev Choice play a commission combined with Schubert Five.  There were people there that night who never dreamed they would be listening to Schubert Five, or, by the same token, listening to hip-hop. And you know what? Many were pleasantly surprised that they liked the other thing.”

The obligations of talent

The musician’s role as a lightning rod began in August 1963, at the age of 6, when his parents took him to the march on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. As time passed, Michael Morgan grasped the point of the march: If you want to get anything done in the world, you cannot do it by yourself.

And if you want to change the color of both orchestras and audiences, you can only do it with numbers — beginning in school.

James DePreist

James DePreist [1936–2013, music director of the Oregon Symphony for 23 years] wrote about all this 30 years ago. If you have two percent of the players in conservatories who are African-American, it becomes a statistical inevitably that in every 100-person orchestra, you’ll only have two.”

This is one of the reasons Morgan has always been looking for consensus, and why his youth orchestra is so vital to his strategy. Another reason is that that’s just who he is.  He’s never been a “careerist,” and doesn’t indulge in the “cult of me.”  Pushing PR campaigns to flash his image is not him.  

Nor does he cultivate critics. Indeed, he claims he doesn’t read them. “I love (San Francisco Chronicle critic) Joshua Kosman but I will not read him. That’s how I keep my friendships.”

He’s not well-known outside his circles, which emanate from symphonies across the country: Oberlin, where he went to college, with its long history of prominent black musicians and conductors; and the San Francisco Conservatory where he taught for 10 years.

Morgan’s aversion to the obligations that go with the selling of his craft may be part of the reason he’s considered by some critics one of the most underrated conductors in America.

Meanwhile, his dream is to run a theater inspired by the European model, where the performance space allows for opera, music theater, and ballet all in one.

“That’s what I would have in Oakland, and the thing about Oakland, which is so different from Festival Opera” — which he ran for 10 years — “and part of the reason I left that is because there’s not really an audience for opera in Walnut Creek. It’s a great musical-theater town, but not opera. That’s the great thing about Oakland, there’s an audience for everything.”  

And he added, “if there had been a way for Festival Opera to perform in Oakland it would have been a totally different story.”       

At Politics’ End

Morgan once described himself in a TED talk as a “European socialist.” He doesn’t remember using that qualifier and these days he doesn’t want a qualifier. His notion is that we’re all socialists in the sense that we should take care of each other.

“I don’t see that as particularly political. That’s just something we should do. Isn’t it?”

Michael Morgan with the Oakland Symphony | Courtesy Oakland Symphony

For him, art and politics are, to varying degrees, indivisible: There’s no either/or. In the end, he’s interested in community, in blending cultures, the power of diversity, and the intersection of music and well-being, imagination, and hope. His obligation is to find that intersection over and over again — that’s his revolution — and he does it in his particular way. Critics might say he overdoes or underdoes it. But he does it.

As an aside Morgan mentioned that he sometimes finds refuge in popular culture, including a Saturday Night Live sketch from Nov. 12, 2016, set at an election-eve party where some liberal black and white friends are watching the returns come in. When defeat is certain, Beck Bennet’s character says, “This is the most shameful thing America has ever done.”

Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock look at each other, roll their eyes, and roar with laughter.

Morgan loves that moment. It captures his optimism perfectly.

“No matter how bad it gets, we’ve seen worse, and so it’s hard to scare us over who’s in charge. We’ve only rarely had the person in that office on our side anyway.”