Conductor and Lifelong Arts Advocate Michael Morgan Dies at 63

He served as music director of California's Oakland Symphony since 1991

(Photo credit: Oakland Symphony)


Conductor Michael Morgan passed away after complications from a kidney transplant in May. He was 63.

Morgan, who had a trailblazing conducting career spanning four decades, fell in love with music at age six, when his father bought their family piano for $10. Fast forward a couple of decades, and Morgan made his international debut at the Vienna State Opera — which he told The Washington Post in 1990 was "the most pretentious thing in my biography, which is full of pretentious things."

He also conducted major orchestras in St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta, finding widespread success in a world that makes it difficult for Black conductors to do so.

“Being a classical musician, being a conductor, being Black, being gay — all of these things put you on the outside, and each one puts you a little further out than the last one,” he said in 2013. “So you get accustomed to constructing your own world because there are not a lot of clear paths to follow and not a lot of people that are just like you."

In 1991, he became director of the Oakland Symphony, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Morgan was deeply involved in the classical music scene in central California, developing the concept of the orchestra as a concert-giving educational resource and diversifying several major organizations' repertoire. He held positions with the Sacramento Philharmonic, Sacramento Opera, Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Bear Valley Music Festival. Morgan's last performance was on July 23, as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.

"This is so hard. I don’t like waking up to tears. Michael Morgan was a hero, mentor and a model for me and so many others," Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, posted on social media. "He was one of the greatest conductors I’ve ever played for to this day. Why? The ability to inspire. Michael Morgan had this gift. ... Fortunately, I remembered to tell him how much he meant to me a few times over the years but, just in case, I’ll say it again. You gave me the dream and you made it a reality by being the amazing conductor, teacher, leader, mentor and person you are. Thank you."

Morgan had also been the music director of the Gateways Music Festival, a Rochester-based program that aims to connect and support professional classical music of African descent through community and performance, since 1993. This coming April, Morgan was scheduled to lead the festival orchestra in the first-ever performance of an all-Black classical symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Our condolences to Mr. Morgan's family, friends, and colleagues.