Saturday, August 21, 2021

Michael Morgan

Oh now, this is sad. Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland Symphony for over thirty years now, died yesterday. It was the result of a post-operation infection that had already led Morgan to cancel some concerts. With Michael Tilson Thomas, emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony, also out post-operationally right now, one has cause to fret.

And Morgan, who was 63, was just beginning to come into his own on a larger stage. Ignored across the Bay for decades, he had just recently made his San Francisco Symphony conducting debut. Among the pieces in his concert was Louise Farrenc's Third Symphony (1847).

That sort of unusual programming was typical Morgan. Getting to Oakland from here for an evening out is a nuisance, but I usually ventured up for a Morgan concert about once a year, because I just couldn't resist his programming. The last one I attended had music by five Black composers, going all the way back to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and including Florence Price's Third Symphony (1940).

There were lots of others, including an evening with American Indian concert music. A rare violin concerto by John Adams. And Morgan was a good conductor as well as an imaginative programmer: of the four times I've heard Bernstein's Mass live, his rendition was musically the best. And he put a blistering defense of the work's value in the program notes: "The work is constantly underestimated by those who are still distracted by its liberal politics and liberal use of popular music idioms. But those of us who have studied it find that the more one studies it, the greater and greater it seems: both as a well-integrated piece of music and as a political/philosophical/spiritual statement."

So Morgan took his music seriously, but he had an informality of manner unlike anything I've seen in other major conductors. Before performing another of his obscure finds, Stenhammar's Second Symphony, he told the audience that he'd first found it in a record bin. Well, so did I; but that's not the sort of source a conductor normally admits to.

He held a poll of listeners for favorite piece, and promised to perform it. Dvorak's Symphony from the New World won, and he paired it with Bruckner's Te Deum, which made another combination I couldn't miss.

Morgan also pleased me by playing a lot of Shostakovich. In February 2017 (note the date), he led Shostakovich's Ninth. He explained that this short, light, cheerful and cheeky work defied Stalin's expectations for a huge, pompous peroration to celebrate victory in WW2, the more so as it was a Ninth, with all the epic burden that number has carried in symphonies since Beethoven. "Sometimes," Morgan said, "when you have a strongman leader, who thinks he can tell everyone what to do, artists have to punch back." And when the audience erupted into huge applause at this, he said with a grin, "I don't know what you people think I'm referring to." And he concluded, "Think of the Shostakovich Ninth as a work of resistance ... our own little poke in the eye to strongman dictators."

Some years ago, I was sitting in the audience at the San Francisco Conservatory waiting for a panel discussion to start, when a guy in jeans and a polo shirt set down a backpack and slipped into the seat next to it, a few rows in front of me. Then I recognized him: it was Michael Morgan. Again with the informality: how many other major conductors would you expect to see just casually in an audience like that?

I really cherished this man and his work, and I'll miss them both.

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