Tragic death of California music director

Tragic death of California music director


norman lebrecht

August 21, 2021

The inspirational conductor Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, has died in hospital after complications arising from a kidney transplant he received earlier this year.

Michael was 63.

His last performance was as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony on July 23.

An assistant conductor under Slatkin at St Louis and Solti and Barenboim at the Chicago Symphony, he spent most of his career with orchestras in California, gently expanding and diversifying their repertoire.

He defined himself as the ultimate outlier: ‘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… 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.’

May he rest in peace.


Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, posts:

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. So, from the beginning, I’ll start. It’s 1989 in Chicago, age nine, I start playing the clarinet. There were a couple famous conductors in the city at the time. For me, they were Sir George Solti and Michael Morgan. I’m 10 or 11 and have my first concerto competition where I have to play by memory. I play Weber Concertino, have a memory slip and am crying backstage. The judge of the competition was Michael Morgan. He comes backstage and talks to me and my mother. He says I played very musically, with expression and that’s all that matters. I didn’t win the competition but I was filled up because of his words. Next, I’m 12 years old and my first audition for a great orchestra was for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. I was too young to be in the orchestra but my brother Demarre was already in it at the time and I wanted to be just like him, so I really wanted a spot in that orchestra. The music director, Michael Morgan, gave me my first job you could say. We went on tour to Japan and my life was changed. I remember him singing at the top of his lungs while rehearsing Make Our Garden Grow! 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. We played Shostakovich 5 and the rest is history. The picture below was one of the first times we got to finally play a concerto together at the Gateways Music Festival. The amount of love on this stage is hard to describe. But it means something. It meant something. It is everything. Love you, Maestro Morgan. 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.


  • Petros Linardos says:

    Very sad. He had an excellent reputation as musician. That’s what matters.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    This is truly a great loss for the S.F. Bay Area arts scene.

  • drummerman says:

    I had the pleasure of working with him when he guest conducted an orchestra I used to manage. RIP Michael. You were so special in so many ways.

  • Larry W says:

    Sad news. Michael was a talented and engaging conductor. He was well liked and respected because he never acted as if he was more important than the music.

  • Max Raimi says:

    What a shame. After George Floyd was murdered last year, I arranged “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for four violas, which I recorded with three of my Chicago Symphony colleagues. We had some concerns about the propriety of a bunch of white and Asian musicians appropriating the song, and so I texted Michael about it. He encouraged us to do it, and generously taped a video introduction to the performance. A profoundly decent and admirable man.

    • Alphonse says:

      “Appropriating the song”? Good lord…

      • Bone says:

        Yep, that’s what it has come to in the USA: race is the first thing that matters, not art.
        Next would be gender, then sexual orientation, political beliefs, vax beliefs, voting beliefs…it’s all very complicated before you even get to the artistic side of things. Oh, well, it was nice while it lasted.

        • CRWang says:

          What does this have to do with a nice tribute to a great musician and what seem to be a great human being to those who knew him? You don’t see him as a human being at all. You’re a pathetic jerk. Dog whistling racist.

    • Patrick Gillot says:

      ” appropriating the song” what a strange concept. Keep your song , Mozart is a much better musician and everybody can ” appropriate ” him.

      • Max Raimi says:

        Knew this was coming from all the heroic right wing culture warriors on this site. It was a fraught time and we wanted to be considerate of the sensibilities of those who saw a fellow Black American murdered in such a horrific manner. We had a very enlightening email exchange on how to proceed. A couple of thoughts from it: One colleague wrote, “Our section doesn’t include any Black people. I feel that maybe it might not be our place for us to record this piece outside of a broader movement to do so. I think getting the opinion of our Black friends on how they would feel about it might have to happen first before we move forward with this.” Another said this, “Tensions are very high and things can definitely be very easily misunderstood, even with the best of intentions. On that point- if we go ahead w any of this-I’m wondering what everyone would think of including an intro, written or spoken, emphasizing OUR intentions.”
        People were in pain, and we wanted to respect that. It is highly regrettable that so many here find this basic consideration so risible.

    • Alexander Platt says:

      Michael is so eloquent here. Thank you for sharing it.

    • professor beemster says:

      one doesn’t need to be a “culture warrior” or whatever, to be nauseated by this idea, that you’d not be in the right to play “Lift Every Voice” without a black guy doing an intro for you to apologize for your whiteness. It’s an indicator of some truly f*ed up thinking that now trades for smart.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    This is beyond tragic. Such a gifted musician, who transcended repertoire to new avenues, educated and enhanced the lives of many musicians and audiences. I first met Michael in the 1980s. Not in his current biography, but he was chosen as a conductor in the Affiliate Artists Exxon/Arts Endowment program in 1986. This afforded him opportunities to work with major orchestras, which led to his becoming one of the most respected conductors of his generation. We stayed in contact over the years, but our schedules would never coincide to perform. However, our friendship endured. His spirit will be everlasting in Oakland, and within the hearts of all the musicians and audiences whose lives he touched so dearly.

  • Sara Davis Buechner says:

    Michael was a steadfast friend, an electric presence on the podium, a joyous soul, and an apostle of musical integrity. The sublime pleasure of collaborating with him often was one of the finest honors of my own musical life. He will be missed and mourned by many, and remembered with gratitude by all who heard his inspired music-making.
    Sara Davis Buechner, pianist.

  • David J Hyslop says:

    Fine conductor, great person. I worked with him in St. Louis and renewed our friendship in the East Bay area. His death is beyond sad.

  • BRUCEB says:

    A sad loss and a lovely tribute. RIP.

  • I never had the pleasure and privilege of working with Michael Morgan, but, writing from Glasgow, Scotland, I can confirm that he had a worldwide reputation for having in abundance the four ‘I’ qualities which are essential for any great musician:- Intelligence, Integrity, Inspiration, and Insight. Michael Morgan was also, I understand , a deeply courageous man who overcame many difficulties in his life with truly life-affirming determination. A really massive loss for Western Classical Music.

  • Jim Dukey says:

    Thank You, Anthony!
    I worked with Michael in the Oakland Symphony, and when he Guest Conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orch.
    He was enthusiastic and had a No Nonsense approach, coupled with a great sense of humor.
    He can’t be replaced.
    The Oakland Symphony also lost Calvin Simmons, years ago.
    Very sad, now I’ll miss Both of them!

  • J Barcelo says:

    In a profession filled with egos, insecurity and backstabbing, Maestro Morgan was not part of that: maybe that’s why he never rose to the big time – he just wanted to make beautiful music, and he sure did. Bear Valley Music Festival was such a joy because of him. Rest in Peace.

  • Patricia says:

    I never heard of him.

  • Carol I. Crawford says:

    Rest in peace, Michael. You were a true mensch in all ways.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Sad news of Michael- studied with him briefly at IU Bloomington- where he taught conducting for a short time. An excellent conductor & charismatic musical communicator- who could have saved a moribund faculty (which wasn’t doing its job training anew generation of professional conductors properly) from a duplicitous/womanizing Hungarian operatic maestro amongst others- shame for that that he didn’t give more of his inspiration there. The fact that he was both Black & gay (totally irrelevant to his musical gifts) made him a role model for others in the US Classical music business- something of which made him both proud & uncomfortable in equal measure.