Leading The Orchestra

Leading The Orchestra

Name: Michael Morgan
Career: Music director and conductor
Age: 48 Location: Oakland, CA
Salary: Assistant conductor: at least $47,000. Music director: at least $1 million.

While most kids get a kick out of flailing their arms about and mimicking the gestures of a conductor, Michael Morgan was inspired to make a career out of performing such acts at the tender age of 9, “I decided I would be a conductor, just from seeing someone pretend to conduct on television,” recalls Morgan, who took piano lessons for 10 years.

Today, as music director and conductor for the Oakland East Bay Symphony (www.oebs.org) and Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra (www.sacphil.org), the 48-year-old maestro steers the four-month planning of each orchestra’s season. He also serves as final arbiter of the compositions played — and how they are performed — at the annual concerts of each orchestra. “We have a lot of opinions [among orchestra members] about how a piece could be played, but the conductor has the final say,” he says.

Morgan handles personnel matters, casting the final vote on hiring musicians, as well as firing performers who don’t quite measure up. He also conducts fundraisers and community leadership efforts. “There was no music to speak of in public schools,” says Morgan. “We lobbied to get it back. Now, there’s music in almost all of Oakland’s public schools.”

To promote diversity in classical music, he concentrates on 4th and 5th graders, making more than 100 annual appearances at schools to elevate awareness of the symphonic world as well as to support organizations like Sphinx Organization (www.sphinx music.org), which conducts preparatory classes and competitions to nurture young string players.

“My orchestra is involved with experimenting with the Concert Companion — a PDA that relays information about the music being played in real-time during a concert. This is part of my ongoing efforts to examine the classical concert ritual in hopes of making it more accessible to more people in an age when music education has disappeared from so many schools.”

There is no traditional route to managing an orchestra, but it can be a journey “because it takes so long to get good at it,” explains the Washington, D.C., native. Morgan laid out an academic plan, studying music composition as part of a five-year joint bachelor’s and master’s degree program at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio during the late 1970s.

When he was in high school, he participated in a documentary on young conductors. Representatives from the Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductors Program viewed the film and were impressed with Morgan’s talent. As a result, he was awarded a one-year apprenticeship in 1979 and was invited to audition for the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1986. That opportunity led to assistant conductor positions with the St. Louis Symphony and Chicago Symphony.

In 1990, Morgan was invited to join the Oakland East Bay Symphony by the organization’s board of directors. “If you can do the work at the level required, academic credentials are not important,” offers Morgan, referring to his unusual ascent through the classical music ranks. “Graduate work is not a