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Michael Morgan, the Oakland Symphony’s Music Director and Conductor, has sought out new audiences and encouraged the organization to play new music that speaks to societal issues. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last summer, the world of classical music experienced a racial reckoning. Orchestras across the country rushed to acknowledge that they had more work to do when it came to challenging racism and striving for inclusion within their own ranks, and their audiences. In June, as protesters filled the streets of U.S. cities, classical music organizations were among the many cultural institutions that clamored to put out statements expressing solidarity.

“There is an urgent need for White people and predominantly White organizations to do the work of uprooting this racism,” the League of American Orchestras said in a June 2020 statement.

The underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic musicians in the orchestral world is well known. Black musicians account for 1.8% of all musicians, and no more than 6% of conductors and music directors, according to a recent study by the league.

“As a predominantly-White institution, the San Francisco Symphony must do more to contribute to a more equitable world,” CEO Mark C. Hanson wrote in a memo last year. 

“We commit anew to self-examination, and to devoting the time, attention, and resources necessary to do our part to heal wounds that are hundreds of years old,” the Los Angeles Opera posted on Facebook. 

Last June, Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan responded to the moment with words that differed considerably in message and tone. “The Oakland Symphony has always supported the social justice movement. And we continue to in these times,” he said simply in an interview with San Francisco Classical Voice.

For over three decades, Oakland Symphony’s leaders have worked to diversify classical music by broadening its audience and broaching the questions that matter to communities historically excluded from prestigious arts institutions. The Oakland Symphony has done this through its unique approach to musical programming. Before the music of Black and women composers like Florence Price, Joseph Boulogne, and Amy Beach made long overdue appearances on classical music stations and websites late last year, Oakland Symphony has given these artists the pride of place they deserve in the classical canon. And unlike many other classical music organizations, Oakland Symphony has not shied away from interrogating through music the social and political conflicts we are confronted with today.

“The rest of the country is fascinated,” Oakland Symphony executive director Mieko Hatano said about interests other arts organizations have expressed in what Oakland is doing. “They’re reaching out, and they want to know more.”

A history of Black leadership

Michael Morgan has served as music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony since 1990, and he remains among the few Black and openly gay conductors in the country. But he is not the first at the Oakland Symphony.

In 1979, Calvin Simmons assumed the role of musical director and conductor at Oakland Symphony Orchestra. In doing so, he became the second Black music director and conductor of a major symphony in the United States, and the only one active at that time—all before celebrating his 30th birthday. But his appointment was not without controversy. Harold Lawrence, then general manager of the orchestra, recounted that some classical music fans objected to Simmons on account of their racial bias against Black people.

Simmons was born in San Francisco and conducted the San Francisco Boys Choir in adolescence. During his career, he conducted at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park and the Metropolitan Opera, and served as an associate conductor under Zubin Mehta at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His charisma, his musicianship, and his identity all contributed to his ability to attract diverse audiences to the Paramount Theater, Oakland’s grand Art Deco music hall. 

“He filled the bill beautifully,” Lawrence said.

But Simmons tragically died in a canoeing accident just a few years later. His passing shook the artistic community in Oakland. In its obituary for him, the New York Times called him “one of the country’s most promising young conductors.”

Today, a fading mural under the I-580 freeway at Grand Avenue shows Simmons conducting, his hands meditatively raised before him. The Henry J. Kaiser Civic Auditorium, which is currently being remodeled, includes a theater that was named after Calvin Simmons in 1988, and the Oakland Unified School District also named a Fruitvale middle school after Simmons.

“We’re going to have to revive the memory by honoring him,” Hatano said. 

Creating a community through music

Morgan grew up in Washington D.C., and became interested in conducting as early as the age of eight. “I always had music teachers in public schools who were pretty overqualified,” he said. 

After winning first prize in a conducting competition in Vienna, Austria he served as an Assistant Conductor at the Chicago Symphony—where he was the first African-American artistic employee in the history of the organization—before moving out to Oakland, where he has been for 31 years and counting.

When Morgan first arrived at the Oakland Symphony, he was frequently asked why Oakland needed an orchestra. In a 2015 TedX talk, Morgan explained, “Many of the art forms and entertainments that we have in the world are aimed at once slice of the population. They’re aimed at a specific age; they’re aimed at a specific race; they’re aimed at a specific ethnicity. There’s not a conscious effort to bring people together across those different lines.”

Morgan believes the power of the symphony orchestra lies in its ability to be harnessed for a diversity of musical styles and genres. As such, he views the orchestra as a way to bring people together in community, especially groups that have historically been excluded from these kinds of arts and culture spaces. 

“Our primary question is ‘who’s not here?’ And we look around the room, and see who is not there,” Morgan said in an interview. 

Hatano said that the Oakland Symphony places primary importance on inclusion. “I’ve dedicated my entire life to orchestras. I’m a woman, I’m biracial, I’m bisexual. It wasn’t until I got the job at Oakland Symphony until I felt like my whole self was important in our profession and in the organization that I served.”

Mieko Hatano, executive director of the Oakland Symphony. Credit: Amir Aziz

It can be easy for orchestras to be complacent about those who don’t turn up to concerts. Until recently, many music directors accepted that a night at the symphony was for predominantly white, older, well-heeled audiences; indeed, they often upheld this status quo, actively promoting the symphony’s perception as an elite activity. Morgan, who does not fit into the average symphony orchestra’s homogenous audience demographic, is attentive to those in the community who might not feel welcome in the space. 

Many in the classical music industry continue to pit orchestral music against pop or hip-hop. Some still proselytize classical music as a “higher” art form than other genres. Morgan has resolutely avoided such a stance. 

“It’s only right that an orchestra plays music that its community wants to listen to—including classical, but also other kinds,” he said. Morgan’s position may appear common-sensical; isn’t it a matter of basic economics to put on work that will draw an audience? Still, it is humbly radical in an industry that has historically interpreted its role as primarily to educate audiences, rather than to respond to and learn from them. 

“There are a lot of cultural signifiers around symphonic music that we need to drop,” said Lynne Morrow, director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus. “A classical concert is not a cudgel. People listen to jazz, blues, Balinese music, Afro pop, Kpop; people listen to all kinds of music. And this is just one kind of music.”

“Another very important thing is giving people permission not to like things,” said Morgan. “There was a time in classical music when, if people didn’t like something, you sort of blamed them for not understanding. Now people are perfectly free to say they like this more than that.”

Morgan’s efforts to bring in new audiences include the “Notes from…” concert series in which the orchestra aims to invite new communities in the Bay Area to the Oakland Symphony through the celebration of musicians, composers, and styles from those communities. A “Notes from Native America” concert in 2017, for instance, featured a Bay Area composer’s work entitled “Big Sur: The Night Sun.” The performance used a seven-foot tall redwood drum, which required a forklift and a special truck to be brought to Oakland. The “Notes from…” concerts also usually include a piece from the standard orchestral repertory, thereby introducing new concertgoers to something from the classical canon.

In 2018, Morgan launched the Playlist concert series, which presents a program specially curated by a prominent figure in American life. So far, comedian and activist W. Kamau Bell, civil rights and labor organizer Dolores Huerta, and late Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson have been featured in the series. 

Director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus Lynne Morrow plans to tour “The Mass for Freedom” in 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hatano, the Oakland symphony’s executive director, said that she gets goosebumps thinking about one of Huerta’s choices for the Playlist series, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Huerta recalled listening to the piece on record as a child. Later, when she protested with grape farmers in New York as an adult, she heard the piece playing in the back of her mind, like a heroic soundtrack for her day.

The Oakland Symphony also works outside the concert hall, bringing art and music to the community. Beth Vandervennett is a cellist and a lead teaching artist at the Oakland Symphony and she coordinates the MUSE program, which supports Oakland Unified School District music teachers and educates students passionate about music in after school programs. 

Vandervennett said the MUSE program’s emphasis is on decolonizing music. “We’re exploring many genres, many cultures, emphasizing that it’s not ‘either/or,’ like classical or jazz, but that it’s an ‘and.’ It’s classical and world music,” she said.

In one class, students are learning the history of a Vietnamese folk song and the stories associated with it. “While we have to work on the technique of how to play an instrument, we’re showing the students that we can apply this technique to any piece of music,” Vandervennett said. Upon learning the folk song, one girl with Vietnamese heritage asked her grandfather about the song and shared his experiences and thoughts with the rest of the group.

Oakland Symphony plans to continue its tradition of arts in the spirit of social justice

In a column written last September, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote that “classical music can overcome the shadows of its past only if it commits itself more strongly to the present.” Oakland Symphony leaders say this is a call to action they readily embrace.

“At the Oakland Symphony, we’re all about new music. But new music that’s actually supporting a social cause, or talking about something in the news—that’s even more important to us,” Morgan said in a virtual Oakland Symphony Salon last fall. 

One of the last major productions for the symphony in April of 2019 was “The Mass for Freedom,” a new work by composer Michael Roberts, spearheaded by chorus director Lynne Morrow. Morrow—who grew up in Berkeley and who was once a violist in the Oakland Youth Orchestra—had long wanted to create a mass which drew on African-American spirituals that served as protest music during the Civil Rights Movement. She worked closely with Roberts to determine what the five movements for the mass would be. In one movement, the credo—Latin for “I believe”—Roberts asked members of the chorus what they believed. Some of their responses eventually made it into the final piece.

In the summer of 2022, Morrow plans to take the piece on tour to the American South with the Oakland Symphony Chorus. She aspires to perform it at the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice—a memorial erected by the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama to commemorate victims of lynching in America—and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Oakland Symphony is also commissioning a new oratorio called “Bodies on the Line: The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike” from composer Martin Rokeach, which it plans on premiering in 2022. An oratorio is a piece composed for an orchestra, a choir, and soloists—like an opera, but without staging or costumes. Rokeach’s new oratorio will explore the events that led to a strike organized by the United Automobile Workers from 1936-1937.

There has been a hunger within the classical music industry to understand what “authentic engagement” with issues of racial and economic justice might mean, said Hatano. “Nobody’s approached classical music in the symphony quite like Michael Morgan at the Oakland Symphony. I think that it’s really important to articulate what’s underneath all of it,” she said.

As the Oakland Symphony looks to its 56th season of performances, its leaders say they’ll continue to create programming that speaks to pressing issues of social justice while embodying the diversity of the city they are a part of.  

For Hatano, the pandemic has only underlined the importance of events like the ones Oakland Symphony puts on. “We need beauty together. These opportunities help us be tolerant and curious about one another. It’s how we meet people who are different but are enjoying the same thing. Our country is not going to be healed by policy; it’s going to be healed by art,” she said.

Jasmine Liu is a writer and journalist from the San Francisco Bay Area who writes about literature in translation, contemporary art, and classical music.