Remembering Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan in 1986

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 Barenboimon 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.

When his and Jean's appointments were first announced, Morgan commented, "I consider the members of the CSO to be our primary teachers. Because it's highly unlikely either of us is going to say anything to them that they haven't heard before. So, it's wonderful when they come to us and share their experiences with so many of the world's great conductors. It helps you feel a part of the family."

Numerous tributes have been posted, including the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mercury News, among others.