The Oakland Symphony performing at the Paramount Theatre, pre-COVID-19. Credit: Oakland Symphony

This Friday, Nov. 19, the Oakland Symphony will open its 2021-2022 season with the first concert played on its home stage at the Paramount Theatre since January 2020. This year would have marked the 30th year as conductor for Michael Morgan, who died in August, leaving his colleagues and the music community in Oakland devastated. 

Now, the symphony’s comeback is dedicated to Mastro Morgan’s legacy and contributions over the course of three decades, and it will look different than years past. 

Since Morgan’s passing, the team started addressing how the upcoming season would run without him. The first change was pushing opening night from October to November and finding an array of guest conductors to lead each show. 

“Beyond even just the logistical issues, there’s truly no understudy for Michael Morgan. The type of repertoire and programming that he did, his seasons were very specific to him,” said Oakland Symphony Executive Director Mieko Hatano. 

The updated programming for the season released in late October was renamed We Remember Michael. 

“The things that Michael was planning to conduct himself weren’t necessarily appropriate for or the best choices for a season that would be dedicated to him in his memory and his legacy,” she added.

Hatano said conductors who had worked with Morgan in the past reached out to the team to see how they could help honor his work. The outpouring of support came from all around the Bay Area and beyond. 

“Everyone reached out. Our audience members, our community members, industry people, other conductors, and other artists from across the country,” she said. “I spoke with so many people about their personal relationships and experiences with Michael. So that was special.”

Opening night this Friday, titled The Music Returns, will feature guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, as well as Lara Downes on the piano. This will be the first time the symphony will be together under the roof of the Paramount Theatre since January 2020 (limited tickets are still available to purchase.)The symphony chose Mei-Ann Chen to lead this night because she was a friend and colleague of Morgan. 

“The last time our orchestra had a guest conductor take over was decades ago. Because of the pandemic and all of the community’s trauma, we had to take a lot of care [in planning],” Hatano said. “Mei is a fabulous conductor and artist. Michael’s not here, but his legacy, how he influenced everyone, is absolutely alive and well through these artists and through our orchestra.”

Michael Morgan, the Oakland Symphony’s music director and conductor, passed away on Aug. 20. Credit: Amir Aziz

The rest of the season, which runs through May 20, 2022, includes nine shows. Highlights include a December 12 performance in which the symphony’s choral director, Dr. Lynn Morrow, will conduct Let Us Break Bread Together – The Music of Ray Charles and B. B. King, as well as an April performance where she will lead the Spring Chorus Concert: Passover & Eastertide at the Cathedral of Christ the Light. 

Another addition to the line-up is having Kalena Bovell, the first Afro-Latina conductor in the country, lead March 4’s The Fountains of Rome show. During that performance, conductor Eric Tuan will lead the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and Meng Su will play guitar.

The season finale on May 20, 2022 will come full circle honoring the legacy of Maestro Morgan with conductor Leonard Slatkin leading. In the 1980’s, Morgan was assistant conductor to  Slatkin in St. Louis, and served as Oakland Symphony’s artistic advisor. Slatkin came to Oakland following the death of Calvin Simmons, who led the Oakland Symphony as conductor until his death in 1982 in a canoeing accident.  

“We have a theme of collaboration with our community, and while some guest conductors might not necessarily be from here, they are of that spirit,” Hatano said. 

When asked about a potential replacement for Maestro Morgan, Hatano said they have a long way to go on that decision. 

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The symphony just released the first Music Maker Children’s book series. The first illustrated book chronicles Michal Morgan’s life and his love of music.  

“We do want the next leader to take up that baton and keep pushing forward with values Michael infused,” she said. “There are some incredible conductors of new generations. It’s really exciting.”

Hatano anticipates the search will be a two-year process and hopes to announce who will take over for the 2024-2025 season sometime that year. She said the Oakland Symphony wants someone to reflect their values of inclusion, accessibility, artist development, and uplifting underrepresented artists.

“We want a leader who can put all of those pieces together to create what Michael did for 30 years — to truly change the industry of symphonic music and orchestras. He revolutionized and made us all reimagine what that needs to look like,” she said. “We want to keep doing that.”

The 2021-2022 season of the Oakland Symphony, We Remember Michael, begins on Friday, Nov. 19, 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre. Click here to check out the entire programming. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.