Morgan State Choir Director Nathan M. Carter Dies at 68
By Matt Schudel
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page C12
Nathan M. Carter, 68, who led the Morgan State University Choir in performances all over the world while building it into one of the premier vocal groups in the nation, died July 15 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Baltimore.
Dr. Carter, an internationally renowned teacher of vocal music, directed the choir at the historically black college in Baltimore for 34 years. The chorus, with up to 150 voices, performed music from the classical, folk, pop and gospel repertoires and was known for both its vocal precision and its rich, emotionally expressive style.
"In the quarter-century of his leadership," Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan wrote in 1997, "conductor Nathan Carter has made this ensemble not only one of the best choruses but one of the best musical ensembles of any kind in the United States."
Since the 1970s, the Morgan State choir had embarked on tours of Europe, Asia and Africa. It appeared three times at the White House and performed at an outdoor Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Baltimore. It recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and performed with the New York Philharmonic and other leading orchestras, as well as with opera singer Kathleen Battle and pop star Stevie Wonder.
In January, Dr. Carter led the choir on its first tour of Russia, performing a concert version of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as a program of spirituals and other music in St. Petersburg. The audience clapped in unison as the chorus -- reportedly the first African American chorus to appear in the 170-year-old Grand Hall of the Philharmonia -- performed gospel tunes and several songs in Russian. Dr. Carter received a louder ovation from the audience than did Yuri Temirkanov, the Baltimore Symphony's Russian-born conductor.
A trim, dapper man with a stunning wardrobe, Dr. Carter was a relentless perfectionist who drilled his choristers in the finer points of phrasing, diction and musical dynamics. He often recruited singers with no formal musical training and whose majors were in fields far removed from music. His groups generally had a core of 20 to 32 called the Morgan Singers; a 50-voice concert choir; and the full university choir, which could swell to 150 members.
"We preach not only music, but learning good work habits, discipline, responsibility," Dr. Carter told the Baltimore Sun in 2000. "We expect them to be punctual and to look sharp."
Under his leadership, the Morgan State choir performed at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony; at New York's Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic; at Carnegie Hall's 100th anniversary tribute to Marian Anderson; in Paris with the National Orchestra of France; and, at the invitation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on a tour of South Africa.
"It is impossible to overstate the accomplishments of the Morgan State University Choir during Carter's tenure," wrote Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith.
Wherever it traveled, Dr. Carter insisted that the chorus perform at least one song in the language of the country it visited. In Prague, Czech residents greeted the singers in the streets with chants of "Morgan, Morgan, Morgan!"
"He took students from inner cities and from small towns across America," Morgan President Earl S. Richardson said in a statement, "and made them international travelers."
Dr. Carter was born and grew up in Selma, Ala., where his mother was a singer and pianist and his father a minister and a professor of Old Testament theology at Selma University. A musical prodigy, Dr. Carter could not remember a time when he did not play piano or sing. Visiting professors came to his family's home to give him piano lessons by the time he was 5.
He graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia and received a master's degree from the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He received a doctorate in music from Baltimore's Peabody Institute. Before coming to Morgan State, he was a music professor and choral director at Knoxville College in Tennessee.
In addition to teaching his singers and preparing for tours, Dr. Carter was chairman of Morgan's Department of Fine Arts and director of the university's performing arts series. He led a fundraising drive for the school's $40 million performing arts center, which opened in 2001. He also founded the music program at the Baltimore School for the Arts, as well as a school of music at Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose pastor is Dr. Carter's brother.
Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Jean Roane Carter of Baltimore, who teaches vocal music at Catholic University; two children, Lynn Carter and Ryan Carter, both of Baltimore; and a brother, Dr. Harold A. Carter of Baltimore.
After his triumphant concerts this year in St. Petersburg, Dr. Carter described the meaning that music brought to him and his choir.
"What matters most in the end is that we communicated with people," he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company