Michael Morgan, who will be conducting "The Magic Flute" at the Kennedy Center for 10 performances starting tonight, is currently associated with four orchestras, guest-conducts many others and is looking for more.
A native of Washington (upper Northwest, where his parents still live), Morgan, 33, began conducting when he was 12. Tonight will be his Washington Opera debut, but he has already conducted most of the city's other major ensembles, including the National Symphony. He has lived for the last five years in Chicago, where he is the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Recently, he has begun commuting between Chicago and Oakland, where he is now the music director of the Oakland-East Bay Symphony, exploring how a community orchestra can function and survive in the '90s.
Back in Chicago, he has two other assignments that recall his own youth in Washington: conducting the Civic Orchestra (made up mostly of young adults on the brink of professional careers) and the Youth Symphony (an orchestra of high school students that draws its members from all over Illinois and parts of Wisconsin and Indiana).
What he would like to add to this list, he says, is "an East Coast base -- not full time, but perhaps a chamber orchestra that you could personalize ... do new music, old music, chamber pieces, big pieces, unfamiliar pieces. I would particularly like to spend more time in Washington, which is still my home. My parents still live here in the house I grew up in, a few blocks from the house where I was born." (For the crisis-prone weeks of preparation, when rehearsals and other duties can run into long hours, Morgan has had accommodations provided by the opera company at a hotel near the Kennedy Center, but whenever the pressure has eased, he has gone off "to sleep in the same room I slept in when I was a boy.")
Running more than one orchestra is nothing new for the slim, energetic young conductor. When he was only 12 years old, he already had two orchestras, one at MacFarland Junior High School and the other (which he had founded) in the People's Congregational Church. Two years later, as a student at McKinley High School, he was the student conductor of the D.C. Youth Symphony, and a few years after that (even before he started at the Oberlin Conservatory), he began entering and winning international conducting competitions.
It was his victory in one of those, the 1980 Hans Swarowsky International Conductors' Competition, that launched Morgan on his operatic career -- right at the top. He tries to be modest about it: "The most pretentious thing in my biography, which is full of pretentious things, is the fact that my first opera conducting assignment was with the Vienna State Opera." That was Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio" in 1982; it was part of his prize from the Swarowsky Competition, and he made a good impression and was invited back. The Swarowsky Prize also got him an assignment conducting "The Magic Flute" at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. So despite his self-description he is really being precise, not pretentious, when he says that tonight's "Magic Flute" will be "my first Mozart opera in America... . "
"When you are associated with the Chicago Symphony, people naturally think of you in terms of big, virtuoso pieces," he adds, "but for me, there is no greater music than Mozart's." He has conducted quite a bit of non-Mozart opera in this country, and thinks that opera is a particularly good training experience for conductors because of the complexity of what is going on "with singing and theater" and because of the need to be constantly ready for the unexpected. But he adds that "opera is not where I live most of the time." Because of the great blocks of time required for opera, including weeks of rehearsal and repeat performances, he limits himself to two opera productions per year.
The educational programming and outreach work that is inevitably part of his assistant conductor's assignment in Chicago does not bother Morgan; in fact, he thinks it is an essential function of orchestras today, and he is making it the top priority in Oakland, where he calls the shots. It is essential for the survival of classical music, he believes, for orchestras "to get rid of the 'elitist' label."
"In Oakland," he says, "we are trying something new: a orchestra that is being run from the education department outward. We are developing the orchestra as an educational resource that gives concerts."
Morgan sees an object lesson in the two-year-old Oakland-East Bay Symphony's predecessor, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, which went bankrupt. He believes that regional orchestras (and many major orchestras too) "must retool to be more relevant to their constituencies; it is a question of survival. If an orchestra does not perform a service to its constituents and take a meaningful place in their lives, they are perfectly right to stay away."
Morgan says he is building a constituency among school children -- a clientele that offers a promising future if not an opulent present. His programming for young audiences focuses on the same kind of repertoire that is played in adult subscription concerts -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. "What got me interested in classical music was not 'Tubby the Tuba,' good as it is in its own way," he says. "We do not play down to our audiences, and we do not give what are now called pops concerts, with celebrity popular performers brought in to do their act while the orchestra stays in the background. I find that these are programs without a constituency in our audience; they do not bring people into our regular concerts and they do not involve the orchestra in anything that it does well or enjoys doing. If the orchestra lacks interest, its attitude is contagious."
Among the younger generation of conductors, without naming any names, he finds many problems. "In music as in politics, the selection committees too often look for personality rather than competence," he says "And when a conductor does have the necessary technical skills, that doesn't guarantee that he will also have a talent for leadership."
Morgan slips into the attitudes of a disciple when the conversation turns to certain other conductors -- Sergiu Comissionia, who has been a mentor since Morgan was 16; the late Leonard Bernstein, who became a close friend when Morgan was a student at Tanglewood; Sir Georg Solti, who is the current music director in Chicago; and Daniel Barenboim, Solti's designated successor.
His enumeration of things he learned from Bernstein includes the art of "beatless" conducting -- indicating the total phrase rather than the time signature in gestures -- a thing that can be done only when one is very familiar with both the orchestra and the music; also, the way to find the limits of any period style in which one is playing; and above all the importance of teaching for one's own continued growth as a musician and a person.
"From most conductors," he says, "you can learn many things, of course, but there is usually one thing in particular. Thus Solti is really 'about' architecture and Barenboim is really 'about' orchestral sound; he has enormous skill at getting a particular sound from a particular instrument, even if he does not know how to play the instrument himself. I am planning to learn what I can from both of them; I will visit Barenboim at Bayreuth this summer when he does the 'Ring' if my schedule will permit, and I plan to spend as much time as possible with Solti. Two years ago, there were only Karajan, Bernstein and Solti at that level. Now there is only Solti."