Perfect Timing: Oakland Symphony Director Michael Morgan on music, movements and natural inclusion
By Lou Fancher
Having enjoyed a half dozen or more conversations with Oakland Symphony Music Director and Conductor Michael Morgan in recent years, one is struck while speaking on July 26—two days after his triumphant debut as guest conductor with the San Francisco Symphony—by three attributes that best explain his success as he celebrates 30 seasons with the venerable East Bay orchestra. Morgan is effusive and enthusiastic about music-making that serves the community. He’s also circumspect and immensely practical when it comes to his outlook on volatile or complex topics like race, diversity, equity, inclusion—and leading an arts organization prior to and during a pandemic. And then there’s just his good, old-fashioned luck. Forming a pleasing, harmonious trilogy for a musician, Morgan’s best qualities all have to do with preparation, practice, and great timing, be it adagio or allegro.
Morgan has led Oakland Symphony since 1991 and returns as pandemic lockdowns lift this fall to the Paramount Theatre to launch the orchestra’s first concert since Feb, 22, 2020. The eight-performance 2021-2022 season in downtown Oakland offers new highlights, not the least of which is the opening concert’s special guest violinist and Associate Concertmaster Natasha Makhijani in a program that includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish,” and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. In November, Davis-based, award-wining pianist Lara Downes joins the orchestra in a not-to-miss concert; in February 2022, three-time Emmy winner Debbie Allen as curator of the season’s annual Playlist concert selects music that has informed her life. Beethoven’s Eroica and Verdi’s Requiem are heavyweight masterpieces presented in separate concerts in 2022; December’s annual Let Us Break Bread Together features the music of Ray Charles and B. B. King; and there is more (visit oaklandsymphony.org for complete season).
It was mid-2020: George Floyd had recently been murdered, Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland drew enormous crowds, coronavirus rates soared, and Morgan bemoaned as an older Black man being unable to safely join the social justice marches. Even then, circumspection ruled the day. “It has to be left to younger people,” he told me. “I’m back to contributing to people who are doing the right things. I can send money to Stacy Abrams and help her get out the vote in Georgia for the elections.”
Jumping forward to 2021 and reflecting on that time, Morgan says, “I knew a lot of people unable to march because we were too old to be in those crowds. With a pandemic going on, sheltering wasn’t a rare thing. I typically do a lot of things that have big crowds, but during a pandemic, you just don’t do that. It’s not sensible. All these things—protests, marches—have been going on for so long they’re baked in to how the world operates. These large, young, very integrated crowds of 2020: you just wanted to be a part of it, but I’ve seen lots of marches come and go.”
That doesn’t mean Morgan is skeptical about participation in civic and social justice activism. “If the people out there are on the same side of an issue you are,” he insists, “you want to join them. It’s like the women’s marches. I knew they were happening everywhere, but I went and did the big one in Washington. You just want to be with your people.”
Morgan is keen and isn’t going to pass up—or be puffed up—by being in the right position in a time when DEI—that is, diversity, equity and inclusion—are all the rage. “You know, a lot of orchestras are working on their DEI issues, and this has been central to what we do anyway. We’re actually getting calls from orchestras to ask how we’ve incorporated DEI into what we do so seamlessly. Other orchestras are having issues bringing people along. We try to help people incorporate it into their thinking.”
Oakland Symphony has been “banging the social justice drum” for so long, according to Morgan, that current movements feel as if everyone else is simply catching up. “Sometimes we’re not sure how much the world is paying attention to these things and at that given moment (after Floyd’s death and during the protests), everyone was. I think a large part of that was the pandemic so no one could go out. You didn’t have the choice of looking away and ignoring it.”
The advice offered by Morgan to other orchestras is largely to avoid doing too much too quickly. DEI at Oakland Symphony is not a prefab attachment hastily patched onto a white male supremacist house or insulation injected post-construction on a model home. Instead, DEI is the house. “That’s exactly right,” Morgan says. “once it’s embedded, it becomes natural. If everybody starts out just thinking we need to include Black composers, they’re not the only people left out. When talking about DEI, there are a lot of different people you need to include in any city: you have to define your terms for yourself. You also have to let it go at the pace your organization can manage.”
Pacing, timing and logic do not disappear as our talk shifts to the rep for the SummerStage series Aug. 19-Sept. 9 consisting of four free outdoor concerts presented at Oakland’s Brooklyn Basin. The one-time only musician configurations are deliberately planned to serve public interest and to prepare musicians for the Fall season. “I believe it was Dina Bartello, our terrific director of development who made the connection. We wanted to hire the entire orchestra but this is not a large space—that’s why I chose programs for a (35-musician) chamber orchestra, a brass ensemble, and works for the percussion and woodwinds to get going.”
The works suit Brooklyn Basin’s small-scale venue and include a symphony from Chevalier de Saint-Georges. “He’s always called the Black Mozart, although I don’t know why. He’s a very interesting character in the history of music who we are only now getting to know. In addition to being a fine composer, he was an expert swordsman. The royal family tried to appoint him to be the director of the Paris Opera, but the singers wouldn’t be led by Black man, so he couldn’t do that. He has a fascinating life story.”
As does Morgan, even off the podium. For the past seven years, he has treated a slow-moving kidney disease with daily dialysis treatments at home or administered in clinics. Having reached the top of the donor list, he received a call at 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 29, Memorial Day weekend. Hospital staff told him there was a good-condition kidney available and asked if he could get to the facility by 6:30 p.m. that day. With the vaccine in place and hospitals no longer overwhelmed by Covid patients, Morgan said yes. At 8 a.m. on Sunday, he was in surgery. At 4 p.m., he awoke with a new kidney from a 35-year-old donor. “The donor had died due to brain death, which they told me is good because it likely means the kidney was not damaged,” he says. Anonymity means information about the donor is limited, but Morgan can write a letter that will be delivered through the network. “I’ll thank them for what amounts to a second chance. It’s essentially an effusive thank you note,” he predicts.
In his Bay Area return with San Francisco Symphony and as director of the Bear Valley Music Festival, where he is currently conducting concerts before returning to Oakland for the OS SummerStage concerts, Morgan remains effusively enthusiastic about music-making, eternally practical in outlook, a beneficiary of good luck, and always, a master of perfect timing.