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Morgan State choir director led group to world renown


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

He was 68.

"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. He was a really giving man and an incredible talent."

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 thor oughly to Beethoven, Mahler and Gershwin as to Cab Calloway, spirituals and gospel songs.

Dr. Carter built a choir that performed for U.S. presidents at the White House and for the Pope, 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."

Its 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.

"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 Richardson said in a statement last night. "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 in the 1990s 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 transformed the choir into one of the most valuable public relations instruments this university has ever had. 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. He has made a lasting imprint on this institution, and we will find some way to memorialize him.

"But I know if he could have one last wish, it would be that the choir continue to excel and achieve the way that it did during his tenure."

One career highlight was the choir's visit earlier 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 for choruses.

"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."

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

He liked to say that he could not remember life before the piano. His mother was Dr. Carter's 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.

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 masters 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 is only natural that the most important people in his life shared it.

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

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.

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 be gan 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.

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

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