Oakland Symphony’s Morgan discusses 2020’s epic events, own struggles
By Lou Fancher
Among the most striking aspects of the so-epic-they-seem-surreal forces currently driving countries worldwide — COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s 2020 elections — are individual stories that humanize these global experiences. A recent conversation with Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan is, therefore, much more than a simple chat about how the symphony expects to survive.
Instead, it’s a glimpse into the many ways one man’s life has been impacted by all three forces — and the heartfelt, sincere message he projects for the months ahead. Liberty is a word not often heard in everyday conversations, but it represents what Morgan — and perhaps most of us — now consider more precious than ever before: basic rights to speak, receive education, earn a living wage, provide food and health care for ourselves and our families, gather as citizens to lawfully protest perceived injustice, be safe from harm in the hands of authority figures and more.
Morgan, 63, was born and grew up In Washington, D.C. Among his many achievements — he was the first Black titled conductor in the history of the Chicago Symphony — he has led the Oakland Symphony for three decades. A sought-after guest conductor and educator, Morgan has appeared with New York City Opera, St. Louis Opera Theater, Washington National Opera, Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, Walnut Creek’s Festival Opera and more.
It is at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, though, where Morgan has notably worked to expand the relevance and accessibility of classical music. The annual Playlist Series he initiated serves as an example; inviting people like activist-comedian W. Kamau Bell, labor organizer Dolores Huerta and the late Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson to determine playlists from any genre for an eclectic concert performed by the symphony’s musicians and special guest artists. In fall 2019, audiences in one regular season concert enjoyed Schubert, hip-hop (courtesy of Kev Choice) and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville Overture.”
Due to pandemic restrictions and the inability to present live concerts, Morgan says the symphony’s return to the stage is planned in May.
“Even that is aspirational,” he admits.
Meanwhile, online programming includes rePAST, offering archival concerts posted weekly and live-streamed performances that he says require complex editing.
“It’s one musician recording on their own and then putting multiple videos together to create an ensemble. We’re waiting for restrictions to lift enough to be able to record 10 people at a time and then have only two recordings to edit together, as opposed to 20.”
Deciding what works online is a combination of intuition and data science, he says.
“We’re making it up as we go along. You make your best guess, put it out, track it — and see who’s listening.”
As one would expect, Morgan is a master when it comes to listening. He has been listening for an entire lifetime — but most presciently during the six months following the death in late May of George Floyd during his arrest — to the voices of people of color.
“The entire thing with Black Lives Matter is the one upside of the COVID lockdown,” he says. “We’re all at home, so we couldn’t ignore it. We’re in front of our TVs. We can’t get away from it. With people not working, they could get out on the street and protest. Racism is not new, it’s just happening at a time when people are focused.”
Morgan participated in the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., flying across the country to protest the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
“It was the second time (since the 1800s) we’d elected someone without them winning the popular vote, which is absurd,” he says.
He also joined March For Our Lives to support the anti-gun violence message of students from Parkland, Florida.
“Now, I’m back to contributing to people I can send money to like (politician/activist) Stacey Abrams and helping her get out the vote in Georgia for the election in January.”
Despite any desire Morgan has to sing messages of joy with others on the streets of Oakland about the results of the 2020 election — “We’ve at least corrected ourselves and are headed in the right direction, and Kamala Harris’s inauguration will be a big moment for Oakland,” he says — health conditions force him to remain sequestered. Morgan has lived with chronic kidney disease (CKD) since 1989. Picked up from an infection he probably never even noticed, the disease’s slow but inevitable progression in the last six years requires daily dialysis treatments and immunosuppression medications that place him at high risk during the pandemic.
Morgan relies on the San Francisco chapter of the National Kidney Foundation for reliable information. According to the foundation, will hold it 32nd annual authors luncheon virtually on Dec. 5, the organization improves the lives of the 37 million U.S. adults who have CKD through education, advocacy and research.
“It’s the latest science available,” Morgan says.
Of people with the condition and million of others at risk, the foundation reports that African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and seniors are particularly vulnerable.
“Like diabetes and heart disease, it hits the Black community harder than any other,” Morgan says. “At the clinic I visit for twice-a-month labs and meetings with my doctors, all they do is kidney disease. I would never have guessed how many people are suffering kidney disease.”
Morgan administers home hemodialysis nightly — attached for six hours to a pump that mostly disrupts his sleep when the machines age and the rhythm changes.
“You get trained, but it’s complicated to do,” he says. “I understand why some can’t learn all the steps and maintain it and have to go three times a week to a clinic. It’s a lot to ask.”
Inevitably, people with kidney disease, including Morgan, require transplants. He has been on the donor list since he was diagnosed but with family members including his 91-year-old mother and a sister with health conditions herself, he has yet to find a match. The symphony announced his donor search in January.
“I made my search for a donor public just before the first lockdown, so of course it’s gone right out of people’s minds,” he says. “Most of the people I know now who are interested in donating are too old. They’re lovely people, but they can’t be donors because they aren’t a match or in good enough health.”
Morgan is in good health compared to others with kidney disease but says, “It’s not critical at this time, but it makes sense to move seriously to find a donor.”
On the symphony website, a note from Morgan explains the simple process to discover if someone is a match. While he waits, don’t expect Morgan to be inactive or silent.
“America wasn’t perfect before the election,” he says, “but it was frowned upon to express racist, sexist things. In the last four years, it was acceptable to bring it all out, express it. That’s no way to live in a society; there have to be lids on things. Some people call it being politically correct; I call it being polite. We weren’t perfect before, but at least we’re headed back in the right direction.”