By C.J. Hirschfield
(Editor’s note: On August 20, 2021 Michael Morgan unexpectedly passed away at age 63 from an infection. In the weeks prior to being admitted to the hospital he had conducted at the San Francisco Symphony and Bear Valley Music Festival. The Oakland Symphony paid tribute to him.)
In April, 2021, ten documentary short subject films were short-listed for this year’s Oscars. At their best, documentary shorts tell a compelling story that, while lacking in length (they must be under 40 minutes) still manage to grab and hold us, leaving us richer for the experience.
One of this year’s short-listed films is A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION, the story of virtuoso pianist and film composer Kris Bowers (GREEN BOOK, BRIDGERTON, WHEN THEY SEE US) in intimate conversation with his 91-year-old grandfather Horace Bowers, Sr., who grew up in Jim Crow Florida. The family members trace the journey from a 2-room house where 13 lived and segregation was rampant and systemic, to Los Angeles, where a successful family dry cleaning business was built, to the opulent Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Bowers’ world premiered his violin concerto FOR A YOUNGER SELF. Bowers co-directed the film along with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ben Proudfoot.
The film brings up issues of race, the power of storytelling, and of course, the potential of music to change lives and move people.
I decided to have a conversation with Maestro Michael Morgan about his thoughts on the film and some of the issues it raises. Morgan is now in his 30th year as Music Director and Conductor of the Oakland Symphony, which is celebrated as one of the most distinct regional orchestras in the country, serving a diverse population in Oakland and the Bay Area. The Symphony, the Youth Orchestra, and the Chorus now reach over 60,000 people annually.
The concept of a concerto as a conversation refers to the soloist and the orchestra—is the conductor a part of the conversation? A good way to look at this is to see the soloist as the protagonist. We can add our own ideas, but generally we try to fit in.
Are storytelling and inter-generational conversations part of the interaction with your musicians and the students you teach? The passing on of wisdom is central to any sort of teaching, particularly music. We always provide a general historical context of a piece; it effects the way you think about the music. (Morgan cites an example of a recent performance of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ homage to Federico Garcia Lorca, a tribute to the memory of the murdered Spanish poet. Key to understanding was the socialist struggle against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War).
Film director Kris Bowers says his parents had decided they wanted him to play piano before he was even born. How did you begin your life of music? My father bought a piano from some neighbors who were moving out for $10—he didn’t know if anyone would use it. It was like a big toy, as far as I was concerned. I tell parents to make some sort of piano available for children—it can make a sound from the first day. The key is availability and exposure. My father certainly didn’t know I’d make music my career. Asian families who are familiar with a tonal language puts them ahead as they learn piano. (A New York Times article stated that most native speakers of languages who use tones to convey meaning may have a form of perfect pitch, according to research).
Film director Kris Bowers first made a name for himself in 2011, when he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. I know you have some thoughts about the value of all blind auditions, where judges cannot see the competitors. Yes, I’m an advocate for all-blind auditions to address diversity (most orchestras are blind until the very end, where disclosing the race of the candidate can alter decisions). Some greats, like the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra are choosing this option, like Oakland has.
In Green Book, which he scored, Kris Bowers also served as Mahershala Ali’s on-screen hand double, providing the fingering for the close-up piano shots. Is this a common technique? You certainly have voice-over singing in many films. Generally, if you see hands playing piano in a film, it’s a double, but most of the time directors avoid the issue by not having closeups.
The Oakland Symphony has really been a leader in featuring the works of diverse voices, most recently a multi-disciplinary salute to our new Vice President, Kamala Harris. Do you think Kris Bowers’ success will serve to inspire kids of color to pursue careers in music?
I hope so! There are lots of kids coming into the pipeline; the challenge is keeping them from falling through the cracks. I didn’t know of any black composers when I was young. It’s more about exposing kids to the art form itself. It’s more important to be exposed to what anyone is doing in music.
Other thoughts about the film? I envy people who get to have this kind of conversation with their grandparents; I didn’t get to know mine.
Maestro Morgan closed by saying that the Symphony will definitely be back in the fall—in some form or another, and that they’re eager for that time to come.
A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION can be viewed here:
The actual film can be screened above and despite the introduction in the following Conversation the screening is not repeated below.
Read Andrea Chase’s review of the film.
Michael Morgan was born in Washington, DC, where he attended public schools and began conducting at the age of 12. While a student at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, he spent a summer at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, studying with Gunther Schuller and Seiji Ozawa. He first worked with Leonard Bernstein during that same summer.
Maestro Morgan passed away on August 20, 2021.
His operatic debut was in 1982 at the Vienna State Opera, conducting Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. In 1986, Sir Georg Solti chose him to become the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for seven years under both Solti and Daniel Barenboim. In 1986, he was invited by Leonard Bernstein to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic. As guest conductor, Morgan has appeared with most of America’s major orchestras, as well as the New York City Opera, St. Louis Opera Theater and Washington National Opera.
In addition to his duties with the Symphony since 1991, the multi-talented and energetic leader served as Music Director at Bear Valley Music Festival, and Music Director of Gateways Music Festival. He was Music Director Emeritus of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, and on the boards of Oaktown Jazz Workshops, the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation, and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.
In the summer of 2018, he led a national youth orchestra of students from El Sistema programs organized by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sharing the concert with Gustavo Dudamel. He made many appearances in the nation’s schools each year.
Watch Michael Morgan’s online salons.
The Oakland Symphony is currently offering virtual performances.
Oakland-raised Mahershala Ali talks about working with Kris Bowers in his role as classically trained pianist Don Shirley in THE GREEN BOOK.
Where to watch the shortlisted documentary shorts.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”