Conductor  Michael  Morgan

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Michael Morgan in 1986   (Photo by Jim Steere)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the death of Michael Morgan, who died on August 20, 2021, in Oakland, California. Morgan served as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1986 until 1993. He was 63.

"Michael Morgan was a very important part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," wrote Henry Fogel, who served as executive director and president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association from 1985 until 2003. "As an assistant conductor, he gave a number of important performances, and he was an extraordinarily valuable part of the CSO's educational and community engagement programs. As one of the first African American conductors to achieve an important career, Michael was a true pioneer. His 30-year tenure as music director of the Oakland Symphony is a testament to his skills as a musician and a leader. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing, which happened far too soon."

In March 1986, Sir Georg Solti announced the appointment of Kenneth Jean as associate conductor and Michael Morgan as assistant conductor, beginning with the 1986–87 season: "I think we have found two young men with both musical and personal credentials that will be a great asset to the Orchestra in its important community programs."

Less than a week after the announcement was made, Morgan joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — along with Solti and guest conductor Daniel Barenboim — on tour to Asia. He made his podium debut with the Civic Orchestra on April 10, 1987, leading Verdi's Overture to La forza del destino, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Michi Sugiura, Mozart's Symphony no. 36 and Ravel's La valse, and the following month, he made his debut conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a series of concerts for children. 

In late May 1987, Solti suffered a knee injury, causing him to cancel concerts in Chicago. Morgan was called upon to make an unexpected subscription concert debut on May 26, conducting two "of the most formidable works in the symphonic repertory, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, without benefit of rehearsal," according to John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. "The conductor was obviously well prepared. He kept his wits about him. He maintained a clear, steady beat. . . . This great ensemble was willing to provide the same, highly disciplined level of performance that it would produce for Solti or any famous guest conductor."

Morgan continued to be a frequent presence on the podium, regularly leading subscription concerts, run-outs to Christ Universal Temple, youth and high school concerts and the Illinois Young Performers Competition. In November 1992, he led a concert version of Anthony Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcom X.

==  Appreciation from the Chicago Symphony Website.  
==  Another biography appears at the bottom of this webpage.  
==  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

After having enjoyed several of his concerts, I had the privilege of meeting with Michael Morgan in January of 1993, not long before he was to finish up his residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Busy with an ongoing career, he was holding tryouts during the hour before our conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve just held an audition.  What do you look for when you’re listening to young musicians who aim to go into an orchestra?

Michael Morgan:   Actually, I was listening in this case with the intention of having the person play as a soloist, and I look for the same things in both.  I assume everyone has the technical wherewithal, and that they can play lots of notes very fast.  Because we can teach everyone now to play lots of notes very fast, I look for people who have something to say about the piece of music
to have opinions about how the phrases should be played, and some passion and opinions.  Very frequently you really do get a lot of playing with a person who seems to have no opinion about how the piece should go, and seems to be imitating whatever the last record was that he or she heard.

BD:   Which opinions are best
the composer’s, the performer’s, or the conductor’s?
Morgan:   If you can make the composer’s opinions your own, that is the ideal.  The best is to take what’s on the page and really believe in it.  Obviously, the composer can’t write down every single thing you’re supposed to do in a piece, so you’re going to have some opinions of your own.  But if you take what he or she has written, and you add your ideas to that, so that you’re doing everything that was written plus whatever you’re adding to it
as opposed to ignoring something that is printed and doing something else insteadthen I think you’re on the right track.

BD:   You say to add your opinions.  If opinions are added from the composer’s time, and more a little bit later, and still more a little later, at what point should we clear away all the opinions and get back to fresh opinions?

Morgan:   The first thing you do when you start to learn a piece is try to forget that you’ve ever heard it.  It’s an effort, especially if it’s something you’ve heard a lot.  Then you go back to just what it says on the page, and from that you add whatever expression you bring to it.  No one expects you to produce just what’s on the page, otherwise we would all play the same all the time.

BD:   Being Devil’s Advocate for a moment, then do we ignore tradition?

Morgan:   We do when it flies in the face of what’s on the page.  For example, in Italian opera there’s an oral tradition that’s come down from the first performances.  Even when these come from the composer and go into the theater, no matter how wonderful something is in theory, when you get ready to actually perform it, there are things that you find work a little bit better when done a little bit differently.  However, when you have what seems to be a fairly clear line between you and the composer
and that only works with very late nineteenth and twentieth century piecesthen I’d say that those traditions are very valid.  But a lot of the times you’d have traditions where no one seems to know where they came from.  It’s just, “We’ve always done it this way, and you can’t trace it.

BD:   That’s usually a poor reason.

Morgan:   That is no reason at all.  [Much laughter]  If you can’t trace it back to have something to do with the composer, then you look at it, and after taking it away and trying to look at a piece without that tradition, if that tradition really seems to be something that is necessary to make the piece speak to you, then you go back to doing it with that traditional addition, or whatever it is.  But a lot of the time, you find it really is not necessary, and sometimes even what the composer wrote is much better than the tradition, and that’s always a happy discovery.

BD:   We’re talking about Italian opera.  Is there a different kind of preparation for doing a stage work, as opposed to a concert work?

Morgan:   I think so because a lot of the unwritten things about the drama have to be taken into consideration.  That includes every emotion that each of the characters on stage might feel.  Those could not possibly have been written on a piece of paper, or into the music.  So, depending how you see what the character is thinking at any given time, that very well might influence the way you approach the music, and the way you approach the phrasing.  With staged opera, the character is supposed to have a whole personality, and that whole personality is open to some interpretation as to how the person might be thinking at a given time, and that’s why we have stage directors.  In the case that you have a good stage director who doesn’t destroy everything, you actually can look at more than one way of thinking about the same passage depending upon the director’s approach.  That also will affect how you play the music, how it’s sung, and even tempo and phrasing.

BD:   Does that give you an extra option, or does it make an extra barrier for you as the Music Director to have to go through not only the performers but then this stage director?

Morgan:   I find that if you have a stage director you are in sync with, when that stage director comes up with something that had not occurred to you, very frequently his thoughts add a dimension to factor in to what you’re doing.  Obviously, it would be somewhat limiting if you’re at odds with the stage director...

BD:   It’s got to be a collaboration?

Morgan:   It has to be a collaboration between the two, and all the good stage directors know that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  All of them???


Morgan:   Yes, exactly.  There are several!  [Laughter all around]

BD:   I wonder if they have the same opinion of conductors?

Morgan:   Oh, I’m sure they do!  [More laughter]  If they were doing this interview, they’d say there are just a couple!

BD:   I assume you’ve had the opportunity to work with at least a few of them?

Morgan:   I’ve had the opportunity of working with quite a few.  I haven’t done an opera for about a year and half now, and the last opera I did was at St. Louis Opera Theater, Mitridate of Mozart.  Ken Cazan was the stage director, and he set the opera in modern day Yemen.  Right now in Yemen, because of the way the women are treated, and the way the story was played, the interaction between the characters worked very well in an Arab setting.  It worked very well in terms of how the characters would relate to each other, how the women
as opposed to the menwere treated at all.  It actually fit very well.

BD:   Should we not send Mozart to the Arab countries because that would reinforce these stereotypes?

Morgan:   [Laughing]  I don’t know.  I don’t think there’s a huge clamor for Mitridate in Yemen at the moment, but that was a case where I certainly hadn’t thought of it that way, but the stage director had thought it through.  He’s a very gifted director, and it worked.  Maybe at some point you want to do the opera in a more traditional way, but it doesn’t have to be done in a traditional way all of the time, especially if you’re dealing with an opera seria, like Mitridate.
BD:   Are you always looking for new directions and new ideas?

Morgan:   Not me.  I tend to be on the conservative side, looking for heartfelt renderings of the old ideas.  But if someone has a new idea that seems to me to make sense, and it is something you can really get behind, then it’s very exciting to do a production like that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In the opera you’ve got the stage director coming to you with the new ideas.  In the symphonic concert, you are the one who has to come up with the new ideas, or they’re not communicated.

Morgan:   That’s true, it’s entirely up to you.  Well, maybe not entirely up to you, depending on what orchestra it is.  Various orchestras have various personalities, and they also throw in their opinions and their traditions about how a piece is played.  They have a way they’ve played it, and they may have a Principal Conductor who has built up a great tradition with a certain corner of the repertoire.  Then, when you come in with your ideas, you’re adding on.  Especially if you’re dealing with a great orchestra, as a young conductor you’re coming to some sort of a collaboration with an entire group of people.  As a young conductor, you should be learning from the orchestra.  You should not just be telling them how this piece, which they’ve all played since before you were born, is supposed to go.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But if you’re going to stand up in front of them, you have to have at least one idea.

Morgan:   Oh, you have to have a very clear idea about what you want, but then you also have to be willing, as a young conductor, to realize that you probably don’t have the last word on any piece of music that you’re doing.  Somewhere along the way, the orchestra may very well come up with something that’s better, and you should be willing to adjust somewhat to that so that you can learn from it.  Maybe you don’t have the work cave in, and do it in an entirely different way, but you look at what the orchestra is showing you.  You factor that into what you have planned, and what your vision of the piece was.

BD:   Is this an ongoing process, and as you get older and more experienced you will have more and more control, so that when you get towards the end of a career you have complete control?

Morgan:   That’s approximately the way it works, but if you look even at a conductor like Solti, when he goes to an orchestra that is temperamentally very different
say, the Vienna Philharmonicthere still has to be a lot of collaboration, because he is at one end of the spectrum and they are very different.  Their collective mentality is very different from his, and while he does really exert enormous force over any group of people he stands in front of, even so an orchestra that has that kind of tradition, and is that strong-willed, is going to somewhat temper what he does.

BD:   Or does he take that and make it even greater?

Morgan:   I think so.  You get really stunning performances when you get those conductors who are the very opposite of the orchestra that they are working with, because you come to something that’s bigger than either of them.

BD:   The sum of the parts is greater than the whole?

Morgan:   Exactly.  Pick any of those incredible opera recordings that Solti has made over so many decades with the Vienna Philharmonic.  There’s something about the collaboration of him and that orchestra.

BD:   I assume it’s different than with the Chicago Symphony, which he spent twenty-two years molding into his own group.

Morgan:   That’s right.  That really is his idea, his sound.  That really has his stamp.

BD:   You’ve spent several years with this orchestra.  Have you been able to do any molding at all?

Morgan:   The orchestra is very flexible whenever a different person comes on and does the same repertory.  Very frequently, Kenneth Jean and I have had to come on and take over a concert for someone else, and I find that the orchestra is quite willing
in fact eagerto try to take on your ideas and add them.  Of course, they simply continue to do what they’ve been doing, but they add them to what they’ve been doing so you do get something that is slightly different.  You don’t get just a reproduction of whoever was there before, and it makes life more interesting for the orchestra that way, too.

BD:   You are Music Director in Oakland.  Are you able to mold that orchestra at all?

Morgan:   Yes.  [Laughs]  When it’s your orchestra, you get to make it about what you want.  It’s difficult with the regional orchestra because they don’t play that often, and you do have sometimes personnel that are only from one concert to the next.  You have fairly standard personnel, but sometimes you get a change, and so there you actually have to go in with a much stronger vision of what you want because you’ve really just got the week when you are preparing them for a concert.  You’re really building a concert that is in your own image.  They’re not continuing a tradition that you are either going along with or fighting against.  You have to make your own statement, and you have to be very clear on what you want to say because you have limited time, and you don’t see them as often as you would a full-time orchestra.

BD:   Would you be satisfied, or could you cope with a situation where you had unlimited rehearsal?

Morgan:   At this stage, I would count myself and every other thirty-something conductor I know, as not yet being ready for unlimited rehearsal, because at this age, what you have to say is limited.  When you get a little older, and you’ve done the pieces more and more, then maybe you get to a time where you need the unlimited rehearsal.  Having said that, my favorite part of my job at the Chicago Youth Symphony is when we go on tour.  As much as I hate actually traveling and touring, you get to rehearse the same repertory day after day after day, and you get to fix small things that you would never ever get to otherwise.  But that’s a younger orchestra, and you’re all learning together.
BD:   The Chicago Symphony wouldn’t need to fix those things.  They’re already fixed?

Morgan:   With the Chicago Symphony, you wouldn’t spend as much time with them working out your problems, so it’s a completely different idea.  As I say, when you are older, maybe you could go with the Chicago Symphony and spend time correcting small things.

BD:   Which situation would take more preparation from you
the young inexperienced orchestra, or the seasoned orchestra?

Morgan:   At this stage, the young orchestra takes more preparation because you really have to be able to teach the piece from zero.  They’re usually playing something they’ve never played before.  The things you’ve taken for granted because the Chicago Symphony knows how they go and how they fit together, you have to tell the youth orchestra.  You need to teach the younger players how tab A fits into slot B, so that already means a different kind of preparation, and a more detailed preparation.

BD:   Which
if either oneis more satisfying for you?

Morgan:   At this stage, they’re different.  I wouldn’t say one was more satisfying.  Of course, there’s nothing quite like the achievement of a young orchestra that isn’t even sure it can do what you have said, and getting them from that stage through a really fine performance, as you get almost invariably from the Chicago Youth Symphony.  You get really incredible performances of really difficult literature, but in the beginning they’re not even sure they can.  That has a completely different feeling, and a completely different kind of satisfaction all around when that happens.

BD:   Are you more of coach than an artist for them?

Morgan:   I don’t know.  With a good youth symphony, you are, if anything, more artistic because you have more time to work out your ideas about minutia, and about how to get from this note to that note.  The turn of a phrase can be refined because you have so many more rehearsals, and you have so much more time to let things settle in.  In that way, you actually get to be more artistic because when you come to the Chicago Symphony, if you’re doing the same piece, and you know already how to make that turn of a phrase go because you’ve worked it out with the younger orchestra, in the end you develop more artistically.  When I’m talking to the younger conductors, I’m always trying to get them to stay out of the limelight when they are doing literature for the first time, and to work out a lot of their troubles with youth orchestras and young orchestras.  That way, when you get to the level of the Chicago Symphony, you have all of the problems solved that you can.  You can’t have them all solved, but you have most of them ready.

BD:   Do you know going in what your problems will be when you get to the CSO?

Morgan:   You have an idea of things that you still don’t have any answers for, but if you’re dealing with a great orchestra, and especially orchestra like Chicago, or the New York Philharmonic, or any of the large American orchestras, they will help you by this exchange of ideas.  They will help provide you with answers to some of the questions you have not answered, because someone along the way has answered most any question.  So when they play something to you that you may have a problem with, you hear the answer in what they are doing.  Then you can incorporate that into what you’re doing.  That’s how you learn from the orchestra.
BD:   Your mind is always working overtime?

Morgan:   It has to be!  Just to stay not behind, much less ahead.  Ahead is almost beyond possibilities at this age.  Just to stay in the right place and not actually be behind, you have to work all the time.
BD:   In Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, the Red Queen says, Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you have to run at least twice as fast as that!  [One of the famous illustrations is shown at left.]

Morgan:   [Laughs]  That’s exactly it!  That’s perfect!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a great big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Morgan:   I’m actually having to answer this with some frequency because I spend so much time with elementary school children talking about classical music.  To them, you’re always having to answer why they should care about this?  What is it for?  The bigger thing that it really does is allow us, if not to work them out, then to deal with problems or feelings.  These are not just negative feelings and problems, but the positive feelings and problems that are too big to express in words.  These are things that no matter how expansive our vocabulary, we can’t put them down in words,  Music has managed to transcend that, and so we’re able to express things that we just have no capacity to put into spoken or written language.  Whatever kind of music you’re talking about that seeks to do that, the best of it always goes beyond what could be said, and that’s what music is supposed to do for us.  It’s supposed to take us places we can’t really talk about.  Sometimes we don’t even know exactly where we were when we were there.

BD:   So, it’s an experiential thing?

Morgan:   Absolutely.  Always, and for me the communication function is very important.  I don’t shy away from the entertaining function when music is meant to be entertaining.  There are musics that are meant to be entertaining.  In the broad sense, if you are interested in serious things, if you love being mentally challenged, then even the biggest things like a Mahler symphony or a Wagner opera, or the Bach St. Matthew Passion are entertaining, and if you try to expand your way of thinking about the world.  To me, those are also a form of entertainment, so I don’t think of entertainment as only being things that are trivial, or easy to do, or easy to understand.

BD:   Is there a balance between the entertainment and the artistic achievement?

Morgan:   This is what we always have to strive for.  No matter how far you go in trying to balance between artistic achievement and entertainment, I don’t think you ever should leave either of them.  If you want to look at those two things as extremes, I don’t think you should ever completely leave either of them behind.  Even when you’re making a great artistic statement, there is still the element of entertainment.  Maybe it’s much smaller in a Wagner opera or a huge oratorio, but the thing you’re doing should still be engaging.  I think we dress up too much for concerts, but there should still be a reason for people to come out of their houses,
and see a concert.  At the same time, when you go the other end of the scale and you’re doing something that is meant to be entertaining, there still should be artistic achievement.  Music that we think of as entertaining, or light music, should still be played with grace, with artistry, and with sensitivity so it never loses the element of artistry.  Even though you’re balancing the two, neither should ever disappear.

BD:   You’re working a lot with young people, and are trying to get them interested in Concert Music.  Are you doing a good job?  Are we getting new audiences?

Morgan:   If you look around, particularly at the Civic Orchestra
s audience, you see the audience that’s going to be devolved for the parent orchestra, for the Chicago Symphony down the road.  That’s the sign that some good is coming of all of this.  When I say all of this, I mean all the running around that I do, and all the talking to young people about music.  The other thing I find is if you’re dealing with children in elementary schoolkindergarten through third or fourth gradethey’re actually interested in everything, and they’re interested in all kinds of music.  They’re interested in anything you’re interested in, and its only if we repeat to them that they’re not supposed to be interested in certain kinds of music, or if we treat them as though they can’t possibly understand certain kinds of music, eventually, by high school they believe they’re not supposed to be interested, or that they can’t understand.  I often have adults come up to me, talking about a large-scale work or a contemporary piece, and they almost speak as though they can’t be expected to understand what we’re doing at all.  They don’t feel any connection to it because they don’t think they have even the possibility to understand.
BD:   Are you able to make sure that people know there’s always an entry-level position for everyone in these pieces of music?

Morgan:   What I’m always trying to get across is that perhaps those of us who have studied the piece, or analyzed the piece, may have a different kind of understanding from them.  But there’s no reason why they can’t have some understanding
even of the most complicated pieceon whatever is their own level, right from the beginning, right from the first time they hear it.  If they don’t understand something, the point is they shouldn’t give up.  They should realize that they can come back and hear it again, and in that way come to a different level, a higher level of understanding just like we do.  We don’t hear it the first time at the concert.

BD:   You’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with the young people.  Do you also work with the teenagers, and are they harder to work with?
 [The LP (shown at right) presents a portion of the concert.  Several of the items on that program were repeated the following September in Alice Tully Hall in New York City.  Also appearing were soprano Hilda Harris, tenor William Brown, and baritone Donnie Ray Albert.  The conductor for the St. Louis performance (and recording) was Michael Morgan.  The conductor at Tully Hall in New York was Kay George Roberts.]

Morgan:   They’re harder to work with, but it depends on the age group, right through senior citizens.  You deal with music through the things that affect their lives.  For example, a few days ago I was at the Martin Luther King High School on the south side.  If I go into a high school, I talk not only about music.  I talk about the difficulties of making a career.  I talk about the social implications of what it’s like to be black conductor, what it’s like to be an American conductor, and what it’s like to be young.  These are things that they’re dealing with in whatever career they’re going into, and because music is so all encompassing, you can approach it from almost any angle.  So, you find the angle that seems to have the most in common with whatever age group you’re talking to, and you approach music through there.  Since music has an approach from every direction, once they realize what we’re doing, there is something for them to feel a commonality with.  Even if i
t’s something that might be as foreign to them as Classical Music, then they start to relate it to their own lives, and they realize it’s just regular people who come to the concerts, and we’re just regular people who happen to play this kind of music for a living when they see us.

BD:   Should the Concert Music that you play fit into their world, or should you try and get their world to fit into the Concert Music world?

Morgan:   There’s less separation between the two worlds than people usually make out.  There’s a meeting somewhere in the middle.  I’d say there’s more of their world in Classical Music than they realize, and vice-versa.  There’s more on both sides than either side realizes, and the gap needs to be bridged.

BD:   Is it really a gap, or is there just not much overlap?

Morgan:   I actually don’t think there’s a gap at all.  People just have to made aware of the things that are common
the common elements between different kinds of music, and the common elements between different kinds of experiences.

BD:   So, it really is as an overlap?

Morgan:   It really is an overlap.  Recently when I was in Washington, I was doing Schumann’s Second Symphony, and someone asked me,
“Why on Earth should someone in high school feel anything for Schumann’s Second Symphony?  What has it got to do with them?  This was not a high school student asking, but rather a teacher or an adult asking about it.  I tried to explain that if you hear the kind of struggle that he goes through to get from the beginning of the piece to the end is common to everyone’s life... unless, by some miracle, you have a life that’s been made completely easy for you, and I don’t know anyone like that.  But the struggle it takes for him to write this piece is common to everyone’s experience.  Maybe they are not struggling to write a symphony, but they struggle in other ways, and you can hear that struggle.  Once you allow yourself to realize and be sympathetic towards that struggle, and relate it to your own struggles, then you realize you do have something in common.  You feel how difficult it is for him to get from point A to point B, and there’s nothing more difficult than being in the junior or senior high school years.  Just getting from point A to point B is very hard.

BD:   When you’re conducting, are you conscious of the audience that’s behind you?

Morgan:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes, to some degree...

BD:   My question is, does it make a different impact if that audience is all junior and senior high school students, or a standard subscription audience of pre-teens right through seniors?

Morgan:   I don’t think it makes a particular difference really in terms of how you play whatever music you’re doing.  You try to communicate the same things to whatever audience, and you hope that you’re doing so in a universal enough way that they’re able to relate it to whatever station they happen to be in in life.  So, you don’t really make it different in terms of how you try to communicate to them.  When you’re putting together the program, if you know you’re going to have a different kind of audience, maybe you do try to get pieces that will have a more immediate impact for whatever group you’re doing the program for.  But there’s so much in common between different ages, and there’s so much in a great piece of music, that people will grasp what they have in common with what’s going on, and relate it to their place in life.  So, I don’t think that makes such a difference.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to write music for the symphony orchestra?

Morgan:   Hmmm... that’s interesting!  [Thinks again for a moment]  For me, the most important advice I would have is that the person should be conscious about the business of communicating with the orchestra and audience, as opposed to putting something down that they expect to be admired from afar.  There are pieces that seem to be written so one is supposed to just admire their cleverness, as opposed to really trying to communicate something to the audience.  Now this doesn’t mean that things need to be necessarily easily accessible.  It means that you’re out to communicate something, and maybe it’s going to take the audience more than one time to hear what you’re trying to communicate.  Maybe you’re going to have to talk to them, and explain to them
which is why we have these wonderful pre-concert lectures.  Maybe you need to explain to them what it is you’re trying to communicate, because perhaps they aren’t as comfortable in your idiom as you are.  So, maybe you have to explain in words what you’re trying to do.  But in any case, you should be trying to communicate something to them, and to the orchestra.

BD:   [Noting that he was just thirty-five years old]  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this particular age?

Morgan:   I don’t know!  In some ways I’m beyond where I wanted to be at this age, because I’m doing things that I can’t imagine actually actively seeking to do by the time I reached my current age.

BD:   Then do you reset your goals a little higher?

Morgan:   You’re constantly resetting them, but you try not to overshoot.  These days there are conductors who are significantly younger than I am who are being handed major, major orchestras.  I’ve been conducting since I was twelve, so I’ve been standing in front of orchestras for twenty-three years, and I know you can only be so ready.  By this age you’re not ready to run a major, major orchestra.  You don’t have enough repertory, and you just don’t have the weight or gravitas.  You just don’t have it yet!

BD:   So if, in their infinite stupidity, they had offered you the position of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony, you would have turned it down?

Morgan:   [Has a huge laugh]  Oh, please!  I assume that no one would be that insane.  Things like that don’t even occur to me.

BD:   But suppose it had happened.  Would you have turned it down?

Morgan:   I don’t know.  I’m sure if I were in the position of some of these people who are being handed these jobs too early, then I can’t imagine I could really have said no.  On the other hand, I have left positions that people thought were really very attractive because I didn’t think I was developing the way I thought I should.  The problem with getting a position too soon is that you’re constantly catching up.  You’re always working to add new pieces.  You’re just hanging onto the back of the moving train, and so you get conductors who never seem to be developing.  From the time they get a position, they don’t seem to be getting better as the time passes.

BD:   They just do a little bit, and do not get better, or they do a lot and none of it’s very good?

Morgan:   That’s exactly it, because they don’t have the time out of the limelight to make their mistakes, to get better, to learn from the orchestra.  If you’re made Music Director of a major orchestra, the idea is that you’re supposed to be teaching the orchestra.

BD:   And the audience?

Morgan:   Yes, and the audience for that matter!  You’re supposed to be instructing everyone.  You may be able to instruct the audience, but you’re nowhere near being in a position to instruct the orchestra yet, because you just haven’t been around the block enough times.  Consequently, you have to do a lot of music, and you don’t have the time to reflect, to stop, to look at what you’ve done, to admit this was a mistake and go off in another direction.  If you don’t do a certain part of the repertoire very well, work on it in a small town somewhere, and wait for it to get better.  This needs to happen before you’re doing everything under very bright lights, and with everyone seeing that you have problems to work out.  There you don’t really have time, because you have to move on to the next thing.  So, that’s actually the most dangerous trend right now in the business.

BD:   Do you see your career going up, and up, and up as it goes on?

Morgan:   It’s progressing pretty nicely at the moment.  This year, when I was doing the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard Orchestras at the same time, I thought it was nice.  I can’t really complain about this because that was really the best of both.  I was doing music I felt very comfortable with at the Philharmonic, and at the same time I was breaking in new music at Juilliard, which is the way it ought to be.  That’s the other thing
everyone severs their connections to student and training orchestras too soon, and they don‘t get a chance to work out the problems they need to work out on those orchestras.  We get to hear them work out those problems with major, major orchestras, or worse yet, we get to hear the un-worked-out problems on recordings that will last until the end of time.

BD:   Have you made some recordings?  I have the one put out by Columbia College [Black Music: The Written Tradition, shown above-right on this webpage].

Morgan:   I have not.  Occasionally someone does something like that from live performances.  T
here’s really a quite fantastic CD we just pressed with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra of the fifth symphonies of Shostakovich and Beethoven.  Really, you’d be hard pressed to tell it’s a youth orchestra.  But if I were to take those two same pieces to the Chicago Symphony, I would wonder if the world really needed another Beethoven Fifth or a Shostakovich Fifth from me at this point.  Maybe later...

BD:   But with the youth orchestra it was good?

Morgan:   With the youth orchestra it was very good.
 It really is pretty impressive, and I don’t say that lightly.

Inspired by their children's summer at Interlochen's National Music Camp, a group of parents formed the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago (now called the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra) in 1946 with the founding principle of providing a superior music experience to talented high-school musicians. In the decades following the first concert, conducted by Harold Finch on November 14, 1947, the organization grew to consist of a 120-piece symphony orchestra drawn from around 50 area high schools. Conductors have included Désiré Defauw (1954–1958), Michael Morgan (1989–1993), and Rossen Milanov (1998–), and many alumni play in professional ensembles nationwide and throughout the world. Tours to Europe and Japan, radio broadcasts, recordings, and awards, including Orchestra of the Year (1993) by the Illinois Council of Orchestras and an ASCAP for adventurous programming (1994 and 1995), have elevated the CYSO's status to among the finest youth training ensembles in the country.


BD:   So, these are things where you felt you had said something?

Morgan:   Well, no, but it’s my youth orchestra.  I don’t feel like I have to have all the answers, but I am pleased if I make a recording with the Chicago Youth Symphony, especially at the end of a tour when they’re playing really, really well.  I don’t have to have all the answers yet.
 But people often ask me if I am making recordings, or if I am interested in making recordings.  I am interested in having a recording contract only because it makes it easier to get a bigger orchestra job.  But I’m really not eager to make recordings, because you should wait until you’re sure about what you have to say about the piece before you preserve it in stone for ever.  There’s enough mediocre-to-bad-to-horrific recordings on the market without all of us adding to that list.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you don’t give mediocre-to-bad-to-horrific performances!

Morgan:   You do if you’re doing a piece for the first time no matter who you are!  I have not yet done a full performance of the Beethoven Ninth, and I’m always saying to people that it’s about time for me to do my first bad one.  I don’t care who you are, the first time you do it, it’s going to be bad.

BD:   [Ever the optimist]  But there must be some things of which you currently give your tenth good performance.

Morgan:   There are some pieces that I’ve given my tenth good performance of.  For example, I’ve a great deal of luck with the late Mozart symphonies, and with the Mahler symphonies.  I sometimes can give a pretty good performance of a Shostakovich symphony, because there are certain things that I just fit with.  I’m doing very well now with the other Beethoven symphonies because I’ve done them quite a lot.  On the other hand, I’m still working out things with the Brahms symphonies and the Dvořák symphonies.  So these are works in progress.  I did record
Coptic Light of Morton Feldman with the Berlin Radio Orchestra last year [CD shown above-right].  I happened to be doing that piece, and they said, “We’d like to put this in the set!”  So, I thought, “Well, okay, if it’ll make you happy...  [Both laugh]

BD:   One last question.  Is conducting fun?

Morgan:   Conducting is still a lot of fun, and as I always tell my young orchestra people, and especially if you do things with a freelance orchestra, they will never pay you enough money for this not to be fun.  So, if it’s not fun, you should stop, because we could all be making more money doing something else.  So, it’s still fun, and I expect it always will be.

BD:   Good.  I wish you lots of continued success in your career as you move on.  You’re leaving Chicago now at the end of this season, which is sad for us.

Morgan:   Not all the time, though.  I’m still coming back and doing things at Grant Park.  You won’t get rid of me during the summers.

BD:   Good!  I’m glad you’ll be back.  
Thank you for chatting with me.  I appreciate it.

Morgan:   Thank you, thank you.


morgan Michael Morgan was born September 17, 1957 and raised in Washington, D.C. where he attended public schools. He attended McKinley Tech High School in Washington D.C. and was affiliated with the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program but began conducting at the age of 12. While a student at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music (studying composition) he spent a summer at Tanglewood. There he was a student of Gunther Schuller and Seiji Ozawa and it was at that time that he first worked with Leonard Bernstein. During his final year at Oberlin he was also the Apprentice Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic under Julius Rudel.

In 1980, he won first prize in the Hans Swarovsky International Conductors Competition in Vienna, Austria and became Assistant Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. His operatic debut was in 1982 at the Vienna State Opera in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. In 1986, Sir Georg Solti chose him to become the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a position he held for five years under both Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim. He became music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 1990. Maestro Morgan serves as artistic director of the Oakland Youth Orchestra, and was the music director of the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra (and the Sacramento Opera) from 1999-2015 and artistic director of Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, California for more than 10 seasons.  He teaches the graduate conducting course at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is Music Director at the Bear Valley Music Festival in California.   In 2002 and 2003 he taught conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center and has led conducting workshops around the country.

As Stage Director he has led productions of the Bernstein Mass at the Oakland East Bay Symphony and a modern staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Festival Opera, where he has also staged Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gounod’s Faust.  As a chamber musician (piano) he has appeared on the Chamber Music Alive series in Sacramento as well as the occasional appearance in the Bay Area. As a guest conductor he has appeared with most of America’s major orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Alabama Symphony, Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Winnipeg Symphony, Edmonton Symphony and Omaha Symphony. He was Music Advisor to the Peoria during their most recent conductor search. As conductor of opera he has performed with St. Louis Opera Theater, New York City Opera (in New York and on tour), and the Staatsoper in Berlin. Abroad he has conducted orchestras in Europe, South America, the Middle East (Israel and Egypt) and even the Kimbaguiste Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2005 he was honored by the San Francisco Chapter of The Recording Academy with the 2005 Governor’s Award for Community Service. On the opposite coast, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) chose Morgan as one of its five 2005 Concert Music Award recipients. ASCAP further honored Oakland East Bay Symphony in 2006 with its Award for Adventurous Programming. The San Francisco Foundation honored him with one of its Community Leadership Awards and he received an Honorary Doctorate from Holy Names University in Oakland,CA. In 2014 he gave a TEDx Talk and was featured by Musical America as one of their Profiles of Courage”.

He has served on the boards of the League of American Orchestras and the International House at the University of California, Berkeley, and the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts. Currently he is on the boards of the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation, the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

==  Biography above is from the John Gingrich Management website.  
==  The item below is from Georgia Voice, March 15, 2013.  
==  The last item is from various obituaries.  

Morgan is homosexual. He has said that "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" and that "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".

For the last seven years of his life Morgan was on daily kidney dialysis. He received a kidney transplant in May 2021, but contracted an infection, and died on August 20, 2021 at the age of 63.

© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on January 11, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following May, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.