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Michael Morgan in 1986 (Jim Steere photo)

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 sixty-three.

“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 thirty-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.

Michael Morgan leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto with Robert Klug as soloist, during the Illinois Young Performers Competition on May 2, 1989 (Jim Steere photo)

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.

This article also appears here.


During his twenty-two years as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969 until 1991), Sir Georg Solti shared the podium with several other titled conductors, who served in a variety of capacities.

Irwin Hoffman

Irwin Hoffman was appointed assistant conductor by Jean Martinon in 1964 and was promoted to associate conductor the following year. After Martinon’s departure and before Solti’s arrival, Hoffman served as the CSO’s acting music director for the 1968-69 season and held the title of conductor for the 1969-70 season.

Carlo Maria Giulini

Carlo Maria Giulini was the CSO’s first principal guest conductor, serving in that capacity for three seasons, beginning in 1969-70. A frequent guest conductor, Giulini appeared and recorded (for Angel and Deutsche Grammophon) with the Orchestra numerous times between 1955 and 1978, after which he began his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (An excellent biography of Giulini—Serving Genius—was recently published by the University of Illinois Press.)

Claudio Abbado

From 1982 until 1985, Claudio Abbado was the Orchestra’s second principal guest conductor. He also conducted and recorded (for Deutsche Grammophon) with the CSO numerous times between 1971 and 1991. Also during that time, he was music director at La Scala (1968 until 1986), principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (1979 until 1987), music director of the Vienna State Opera (1986 until 1991), and chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (beginning in 1989).

Henry Mazer

A former protégé of Fritz Reiner, Henry Mazer was appointed by Solti in 1970 as associate conductor, and he served the CSO in that capacity for sixteen years until 1986. He became music director of the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra in 1985.

Margaret Hillis

Founder and longtime chorus director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Margaret Hillis was hired by Fritz Reiner in 1957 and was the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in November of that year. Of course, she prepared the Chorus for virtually all choral concerts during Solti’s tenure as music director, worked very closely with Solti on countless recordings, and appeared frequently as a guest conductor with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Kenneth Jean

Michael Morgan

In 1986, Sir Georg Solti appointed two American-born associate conductors, Kenneth Jean and Michael Morgan. Each served the Orchestra until 1993. In 1986, Jean also became music director of the Florida Symphony Orchestra. Morgan was named music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 1990 and music director of the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997.

István Kertész

At the Ravinia Festival, two conductors served as titled conductors during Sir Georg Solti’s tenure. Fellow Hungarian István Kertész first led the CSO at Ravinia in 1967 and was principal conductor from 1970 until 1972. Prior to that, his posts included: chief conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Hungary, general music director of the Augsburg Opera, general music director of the Cologne Opera, and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

James Levine

On June 24, 1971, twenty-eight-year-old James Levine replaced an indisposed Kertész in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Ravinia Festival. (He had made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera only a few weeks earlier, on June 5). Shortly thereafter, he was named the festival’s music director beginning in the summer of 1973 and held the post for twenty years, until 1993. Levine has been the longtime music director of the Metropolitan Opera since 1976.

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim first guest conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1970, and he subsequently was a frequent visitor on the podium and in recording (for Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, and Erato). On January 30, 1989, The Orchestral Association announced that he would become the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, beginning in September 1991 (he had also succeeded Solti as music director of the Orchestra de Paris in 1975). Barenboim was given the title music director designate.

the vault

Theodore Thomas


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