Black maestro and music director of the Oakland Symphony, Michael Morgan, who worked to bring orchestral music to people of color during his 30-year career, died on Aug. 20 in Oakland, Calif. He was 63.
The New York Times reports that Morgan’s cause of death was an infection. He had recently received a kidney transplant in May before returning to his conducting duties in July.
Born on Sept. 17, 1957, in Washington, Michael DeVard Morgan started taking piano lessons at 8-years-old. By 12, he was conducting his junior high school orchestra. His mother, Mabel (Dickens) Morgan, was a health researcher, and his father, Willie, was a biologist.
Morgan attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to study composition.
By 1986, he was the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and during his seven years, Morgan directed the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Chicago Youth Symphony. It was then that he understood what his mission was for the symphony.
“When I began my career, I was not involved in the idea of being a role model or increasing minority numbers in the field,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1993, according to the Times. “I came to realize, however, that someone has to take responsibility.”
After moving to Oakland in the 1990s, Morgan’s passion and interest to diversify the symphony’s programming and audience strengthened. In 2001 he brought Issac Hayes to the Paramount Theater, the orchestra’s headquarters, and later invited Carlos Santana in 2010.
His labor of love soon initiated a program called “Playlist” that welcomed guests like comedian W. Kamau Bell and activist Dolores Huerta to perform.
“My main goal is to show the rest of the field of orchestra music that you can make an orchestra relevant and of interest to the community, especially to Black youngsters who some may think are not interested in anything,” he said in an interview with the weekly newspaper The California Voice in 1991, the Times notes.
Morgan is survived by his mother and a sister, Jacquelyn Morgan
(Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)