Morgan State choir director led group to world renown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nathan M. Carter, who almost single-handedly lifted the Morgan State University choir from an oversized glee club to international prominence, died yesterday at his Baltimore home after a long illness.

A family spokeswoman declined to provide the cause of death. He was 68.

In a city well-stocked with admirable choral ensembles, the Morgan State choir continually stood out under Dr. Carter's guidance for its discipline, richness of tone and, above all, joyous music-making. These qualities were maintained year after year - despite continual changes of personnel as students graduated - and were applied as thoroughly to Beethoven, Mahler and Gershwin as to Cab Calloway, spirituals and gospel songs.

Community and musical figures hailed Dr. Carter's contributions last night.

"He was an international treasure that happened to live right here in our community," said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "We were all enriched by the fact that he gave his time not only to Morgan State University and their renowned choir, but also to the Baltimore School for the Arts and local churches."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called Dr. Carter "a gentle giant of a man who through the simple eloquence of his example gave voice to poets and melody to our history."

In his 34 years at Morgan State, Dr. Carter built a choir that performed for presidents at the White House and for the pope, and recorded with the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic/Lincoln Center jazz orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

National and international tours spread the choir's reputation beyond Baltimore. So did recordings, including a 1996 release of Hannibal Lokumbe's African Portraits performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The May 2004 issue of Reader's Digest designated the ensemble "America's Best College Choir."

The choir's 25th anniversary concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1996 aired on Maryland Public Television and later won three regional Emmy Awards, including one for the outstanding entertainment program.

'A terrible loss'

"It is a terrible loss for the university because Dr. Carter made such a tremendous contribution not only to the school but to our students as well," Morgan State University President Earl S. Richardson said in a statement. "He took students from the inner city and from across rural America and made them into travelers. He was for Morgan and the community, and was one of our greatest ambassadors."

Richardson recalls walking through the streets of Prague with Dr. Carter and the choir while Czech passers-by chanted, "Morgan! Morgan! Morgan!"

"It was as though the whole city came to a stop when the students walked down the street," Richardson said. "He carried the university's name to places where it would never have been heard otherwise, not only across this country, but to the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa."

One career highlight was the choir's visit this year to St. Petersburg, Russia, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In the hours leading up to concert time, Dr. Carter continually worked on the smallest details of George Gershwin's score of Porgy and Bess with his singers, even fine-tuning the articulation of consonants. The careful preparation paid off before a packed house at the historic Philharmonia Hall, where roars of approval greeted the performance. The audience reserved a particularly hearty cheer for Dr. Carter's bow. "I'm speechless," he said later. "This matches the best response we've ever had."

The choir also rates a mention in music scholar Eileen Southern's definitive history, The Music of Black Americans, in which she lists it among those choruses that in the 1990s "enjoy a measure of success and celebrity."

Others concurred with Southern's assessment.

"The Morgan Chorus gives some of the riskiest, most exciting performances of any chorus that I've ever heard at any level," said Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and past president of Chorus America, a trade group.

"I'm hard-pressed to think of any other chorus that is as consistently excellent. What Nathan has done is nothing short of remarkable, and he's done it with inexperienced kids right out of high school," Hall said.

"There has never been anyone like him," said Miryam Yardumian, artistic administrator of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "He gave so much and demanded so much."

Dr. Carter's own track record was even too much for him to keep up with - much less archive.

Dr. Carter liked to say that he could not remember life before the piano. His mother was his earliest teacher, but by age 5, a music professor was coming to the house in Selma, Ala., to give lessons to the talented boy. Young Nathan was always rehearsing, always at the piano or working with the vocal quartet he had formed, recalled his younger brother, Harold Carter, now senior pastor at Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church.

Their father, a minister, taught at Selma University, a Baptist school. Their mother, a former school principal and talented soprano, stayed home to raise five children. Nathan was the oldest.

Ferocious work ethic

Even as a child, Dr. Carter exhibited the ferocious work ethic and attention to detail that he would later be known for.

He once told an interviewer: "I remember working in the yard of the antebellum home of the richest family in Selma. My job was to line up the bricks to trim the lawn." When his employer observed his work, she praised him: "Nathan, you sure have a great respect for accuracy."

At 15, young Nathan was off to Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., where he eventually traded piano for choral conducting. Next came a second undergraduate degree and a master's in choral conducting at Juilliard School of Music.

After serving as head of the choir and music department at Knoxville College in Tennessee, he came to Baltimore in 1969 to enter a doctoral program at the Peabody Conservatory. It wasn't long before he took over the Morgan University choir - the demands of which, coupled with his growing family, kept him from receiving his Peabody degree until 1982.

Dr. Carter's passion for music was so strong that it was only natural that the most important people in his life shared it.

His wife of 44 years, Jean, is a gifted music educator who has worked with a Philadelphia opera company and now teaches voice at Catholic University in Washington. Their daughter, Lynn, is a professional singer who has toured the world.

Range, perfectionism

Under Dr. Carter's direction, Morgan State's choir became known for its range and perfectionism; while on European tours, the choir always sings at least one song in the host country's native language - a gesture warmly appreciated by the audience at the St. Petersburg concerts.

The choir became known for its depth; while there was a core group of 30 or so singers, Dr. Carter at times would draw on a group five times that large. And it became known for its spontaneity. Often members of the choir wouldn't know which of them was to sing a solo until mid-concert.

Dr. Carter achieved those results through forging a relationship with members of the choir that some observers likened to that between a football coach and his team, or a pastor and his congregation.

In rehearsal, when Dr. Carter heard a sound that he didn't like, his eyes would flame. Distracted or lazy singing could make him groan and grunt, smack the piano, stick out his tongue and loose a flood of angry words. But when the sound arced the way he wanted it, Dr. Carter would shut his eyes as if he had just sipped perfection.

Some students called him "Dad," both out of affection and for his habit of micromanaging every aspect of a concert or tour.

He created a memorable presence. The high standards he set for his music also extended to his wardrobe, which invariably was impeccable and the height of fashion. During a solo concert during the St. Petersburg visit, Dr. Carter was resplendent in white ruffles and tails with a sequined trim.

'A genius'

He was as celebrated for being a music educator and a mentor as he was for his performances. He built the music program at the Baltimore High School for the Arts, initiating the choral program which is a mainstay of the curriculum at the school.

"Nathan did some of the most incredible work with the chorus. We had performances that were monumental," said David Simon, former director of the school. "I have always felt that Nathan is a genius - and I don't use that word loosely."

Carter also helped launch the careers of dozens of singers, including sopranos Janice Chandler and Kishna Davis. And he was a driving force behind the construction of the $40 million Carl G. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University.

In later years, Dr. Carter began to reap the rewards and honors befitting his career: Peabody's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1997; the Music America Lifetime Achievement Award from Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998; the Andrew White Medal from Loyola College in 1998 for contributions to music; and the Governor's Arts Award - the state's most prestigious arts award - as the most distinguished arts educator in 2002.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete last evening.

Sun staff writers Linell Smith, Lynn Anderson and Tim Smith contributed to this article.

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