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The Oakland Symphony suffered an immeasurable loss this year with the death of Michael Morgan. The beloved conductor and music director, who served the organization for more than 30 years, was revered by musicians and audiences alike.
Morgan, who died on Aug. 20 at age 63 from complications following kidney transplant surgery, left an indelible mark on the Bay Area music scene. His tenure enhanced the Oakland Symphony’s profile, elevated the artists he worked with and redefined how an orchestra could build, serve and reflect its community. His accomplishments were so deep, that some, in the wake of his loss, wondered whether the organization he led could survive without him.
Yet according to Oakland Symphony executive director Dr. Mieko Hatano, the symphony’s new season, which opens Friday at the Paramount Theatre, will carry Morgan’s legacy of innovation, inclusion and inspired music-making well into its next chapter. In a recent interview, she reflected on the conductor’s loss — and the way forward he made possible.
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“When it happened, we were all traumatized,” Hatano said of Morgan’s passing. “At the same time, because this organization that Michael built over 30 years was so much of him and his vision, we all shared the same horizon ahead of us. So there was no sense of not knowing what to do next. As staff and board and volunteers — everyone so grief-stricken — that’s what we all had to go to, that feeling of ‘in this moment, we have to keep going.’”
Going forward meant launching the ’21-’22 season. But first, the symphony presented a tribute concert to its longtime leader. On Oct. 19, the Paramount Theatre filled to capacity with patrons, musicians and longtime friends wanting to pay their last respects. The program featured an eclectic lineup of orchestra members and guest artists, demonstrating how many lives Morgan touched and how wide-ranging his musical interests were.
Hatano said it was the kind of event that Morgan would have loved. “Michael had this unique way of making people feel that he spoke to you in a very personal way, so that you felt like you knew him,” she said. “For each of us who knew him personally, we all knew him in very different ways. He had so many interests. It truly took a roomful of people and then some to put it together in a way that was representative of Michael’s many sides and interests.”
The Oakland Symphony also recently released a children’s book called “Michael Morgan Music Maker,” modeled on the Little People Big Dreams books, that chronicles the conductor’s life and is available for $25 on the symphony’s website.
Now, the fall season is about to begin. Announced earlier this month, it opens Friday and runs through May 20, 2022, with six subscription programs and assorted special events.
Hatano is especially proud of the season’s lineup of guest conductors, beginning with Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Conducting the Nov. 19 season opener, titled “The Music Returns,” Chen will lead a program featuring Florence Price’s Piano Concerto, with Lara Downes as soloist; also included are William Grant Still’s “In Memoriam, The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”
December brings the symphony’s popular holiday concert: “Let Us Break Bread Together.” This year’s installment on Dec. 12 features the music of Ray Charles and B. B. King.
A concert featuring conductor Leslie B. Dunner kicks off 2022 with a Jan. 21 program that features Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor, “Gaelic,” and Paul Moravec’s “Sanctuary Road.” Guest artists include soprano Hope Briggs, mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, tenor Noah Stewart, baritones Damien Geter and Phillip Harris, along with the Oakland Symphony Chorus led by Dr. Lynne Morrow.
Kalena Bovell, assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, leads the March 4 program, featuring guitarist Meng Su and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir in works by Rodrigo, Debussy, Rautavaara and Respighi.
Dunner returns March 25 to lead the world premiere of a still-to-be-announced new work by composer Jack Perla; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Andrés Martin’s Bass Concerto No. 1, featuring Aaron Olguin, complete the program.
Nicholas McGegan, well-known to Bay Area audiences for his long tenure as music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, takes the podium on April 22 for a program featuring award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham as narrator in Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Suite. Works by Mozart and Libby Larsen are also featured.
On May 20, esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin leads the season finale; the program features Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, along with music by Michael Tippett and Cindy McTee.
Special events include the symphony’s popular “Playlist” series — another Morgan innovation — returning Feb. 12 with “Debbie Allen’s Playlist,” featuring the popular singer-dancer-actress and Kennedy Center honoree; and a “Spring Chorus Concert” led by Morrow on April 9 at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.
Today, Hatano says that Morgan’s lasting legacy — and the Oakland Symphony’s way forward — is quite clear: to continue the conductor’s ideals of inclusion, accessibility, education and artist development.
“For us, and for everyone else who had the opportunity to know him, we hold these ideals,” she said. “Those are all things that Michael stood for, and we know it’s our responsibility to carry on in that role.”
The Oakland Symphony season takes place from Nov. 19 to May 20, with all concerts at Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, except for the April 9 Chorus Concert at the Cathedral of Christ the Light, 2121 Harrison Street, Oakland. For more information and tickets, call (510) 444-0802 or visit oaklandsymphony.org. To purchase the children’s book, “Michael Morgan Music Maker,” visit https://www.oaklandsymphony.org/musicmaker/.