Pumping up the Phil

The Sacramento Philharmonic’s new conductor, Michael Morgan, sees a rosy future for classical music in the River City

It’s probably the most famous four-note sequence in the world, music that everybody knows—or thinks they know:

Da- da- da- D-a-a-a-a-h.

But how many people—living in the here and now, Sacramento 2001—have actually heard the Beethoven Fifth Symphony live?

“I actually find that with the Beethoven Fifth, because people think they know it so well, you can do really revelatory performances—just because of the level of energy you can achieve.”

So says Michael Morgan, conductor of the Sacramento Philharmonic, who—as an African-American working in a field still largely dominated by European males—knows a thing or two about using the element of surprise to defy the standard expectations.

“There are some Beethoven symphonies that you can’t really give great performances of anymore, because they’ve been overplayed,” Morgan continues. “Eroica is like that. But with the Fifth, actually, it’s kind of surprising how little it is played in live performance. Everyone hears it all the time, but usually in recordings.”

(It reminds this writer of the time he surveyed the staff at Capital Public Radio—an educated group—asking if they’d ever seen Romeo and Juliet on stage—you know, the one with the balcony scene. The standard response: “Well, I saw the Zeffirelli film when I was a kid … ” Maybe three out of 25 had seen the real thing.)

And never forget, Beethoven was a troublemaker, no matter how much he’s been prettied up posthumously. Stephen Mackey—the 40-ish composer/electric guitarist who is coming back in May to his alma mater, UC Davis, for a performance of his adventuresome opera Ravenshead—says: “Beethoven has been co-opted by the marketing executive as a symbol of good taste and refinement. But let’s not forget that his music is wild, libidinous, psychedelic and revolutionary. His music was ‘too loud’ in more ways than one for some members of the audience in his lifetime.”

Still is. You can calm a fussy baby with slow movements by Haydn or Mozart. But try it with Beethoven, and you’ll soon be comforting a crying child. Even Beethoven’s adagios have jagged, edgy crescendos. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner went so far as to trace Beethoven’s “revolutionary” lineage to heirs such as Dmitri Shostakovich, John Cage, Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain in liner notes to his 1994 recording of the Fifth.

Morgan can’t recall the first time he conducted the Beethoven Fifth—he studied the piece years ago at Tanglewood, and he’s done it since with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and elsewhere. At 43—“young” as conductors go—Morgan nonetheless has developed a perspective. “I think that when you’ve done the Fifth a few times, you begin to see more of the forest, the big picture. That’s the thing that comes only over time,” he says.

The rest of the Sacramento Philharmonic’s April 14 concert is virtually brand new. Morgan deliberately sought out composers at the region’s two universities—Yu-Hui Chang of UC Davis and Leo Eylar of CSUS. Chang’s Amid Haze is decidedly modern, but with a Chinese angle. The solo part is for erhu. “It’s an old instrument,” Chang says. “But I avoided Chinese folk tunes or pentatonic scales,” she adds. “It can be very nimble when you play it fast, but with the slower melodies it’s the best.”

A provocative painting by the French symbolist artist Odilon Redon inspired Eylar’s piece, A Pandora Fantasy. Eylar says he’s trying to depict “Pandora and her sensuality—she’s like the Greek version of Eve. And all the evils and troubles come flying out of the box when she opens it. The only thing left inside is hope.”

Building up contacts with the two universities is a smart move, since the Sacramento Philharmonic is gradually gaining stability after a wild five-year period that saw the old Sacramento Symphony go bankrupt; the formation of the Sacramento Philharmonic under highly controversial conductor Zvonimir Hacko; and Hacko’s dismissal by his own board.

Morgan came on the scene as a guest conductor on the heels of Hacko’s dismissal. The local musicians liked Morgan. And the Philharmonic’s board—recognizing Morgan’s work with the Oakland-East Bay Symphony (he’s now in his eleventh year there), which formed after the old Oakland Symphony drowned in red ink—was impressed by Morgan’s accomplishments as a “fixer.” Morgan served the Philharmonic last season as resident conductor, a title upgraded this year to music director.

Morgan comes with quite a background. Born in Washington, D.C., he attended public schools and started conducting at 12. At Tanglewood, he studied under Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.

Morgan then became assistant conductor with two major orchestras—St. Louis and Chicago. Being an assistant conductor, Morgan recalls, is a little like being a vice president—the duties vary, depending on who’s in charge. Morgan worked closely with Georg Solti, in an era when the Chicago Symphony made everybody’s short-list of the world’s best, but under Leonard Slatkin in St. Louis, it was more a matter of delegated tasks. Morgan guest conducts around the country. And he’ll soon be headed to the Congo (formerly Zaire), his first visit to Africa. “There’s an all-black symphony and chorus there. I didn’t know it was there until recently.”

Working in a capital city reminds him a little of his hometown. “Since I grew up in Washington, D.C., I have a ‘political’ agenda anyway,” Morgan jokes. A portion of his heart is still there. Overhearing a call to a buffet, Morgan listens to the speaker’s pronunciation and remarks: “'Bar-bee-kew.’ She’s not a Southerner, is she?”

Morgan is well aware that when it comes to hiring a conductor, things like race, gender and nationality are potent factors, to say nothing of good looks and a full head of hair. Most American orchestras tend to hire Europeans. A few women have made headway in the field, but they’re very much in the minority. And what about someone like Morgan? In many cities, he’s the only black conductor that many people in the audience have seen.

“It’s sort of my contribution to make,” he says. “Just to get young people—of whatever kind—to think about classical music differently.”

Morgan is optimistic about the future of classical, which is to say that he’s bucking the tide. “For a while, we were all worried about live concerts because of the recording industry,” he says. “But there’s really no need to worry, because there’s never going to be a replacement for people coming together and seeing music played live.”

And what about that graying audience? Morgan says it’s not a new problem. “It’s an acquired taste. Even some of the most rabid concertgoers started at a relatively late age. One shouldn’t panic over the age of audiences, because all through history, it’s been that way.” And with baby boomers getting up in years, there’s a big segment moving into classical music’s traditional demographic.

Morgan is realistic about the job ahead. The Sacramento Philharmonic operates on a shoestring; its budget is significantly smaller than those of the Stockton or Modesto orchestras. There’s little—if any—money for advertising. Mostly, Sac Phil relies on fliers, a Web site (www.sacramentophilharmonic.org) and word of mouth.

Of necessity, the group rehearses on a compressed schedule and often performs on holiday weekends—such as Saturday’s performance, the night before Easter.

Nonetheless, the Philharmonic is gradually bringing back subscribers who got burned when the old Sacramento Symphony sank, or were spooked during Hacko’s tenure.

“We put on quite good concerts, considering that we barely exist,” Morgan says. “The level of playing is pretty astounding, our ticket sales are slowly growing, and so is our corporate support. We certainly have our work cut out for us, but I like the way it’s going.”