In anticipation of his return to the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra on 29 May 2022, black American composer and conductor Andre J Thomas talks to Marlene Cato about his work, upcoming concerts and his love of Spiritual and Gospel music.
Three insights describes my interview with André J Thomas; a great sense of humour, a deep love and passion for gospel and spiritual music and finally and an astounding breadth of knowledge, revealing unknown tenets about Black history and it’s relationships to Black music from pre-slavery to present day.
At the interview, Thomas was a couple weeks short of retiring from Yale University and ready to travel back to his hometown in Jacksonville, Florida, then from there, fly to London to prepare for his conducting the world-renown London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in concert. It is to Andre J Thomas’ credit and his incredible work on spiritual and gospel music that he has now been made an Associate Artiste with the London Symphony Orchestra. Joining the great line of conductors and composers that have worked with the LSO including Andre Previn and John Williams (composer of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman). He has a three-year term with the LSO in which he intends on bringing a sweet merge of hidden history and music back to life. Championing the spirituals, gospel and other works and genres by Black composers, not least including his own compositions at The Barbican in London.
Though having been brought up Baptist during the late 50s and 60s, Thomas did not always love the spirituals, in fact, he hated them, until he met composer and actor, Jester Hairston who wrote one of the gospel greats ‘Amen’. Hairston set him straight about the music he thought was designed “for White people to make fun of Black people”. The spirituals was not only about the weight of slavery found in songs like ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’, but perseverance, lifting the heart and an undying belief in liberty for those so far from it. This revelation has served as inspiration within Thomas’s own work. Inspiration also came from his mother, a coach cleaner and older sister who was a teacher of English and German in an all white school in Kansas during segregation. She would drop him off every morning, to ensure he actually went to school, as it was not easy being the only Black child in a school of 2,000 white students. Later in high school he became one of five Black students and one Black teacher, his sister, who he credits for shaping and influencing his life. After graduating high school he attended college and there met his mentor and developed a love and passion for the songs and music of the Spirituals.
The impact of Spirituals like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’ had so much meaning. These were songs of resistance, hope, consolation, anticipation, even ways of communicating between enslaved people, especially the secret coded messages of the underground freedom railroad. Over the years, Thomas has conveyed this history in his work, to students and thousands of audiences across the world, bringing understanding of the spirituals purpose and deep importance in the liberty of Black people. As well as their influence in the music we hear today. Thomas has honoured the spirituals by bringing this genre of music to the masses, a custodian of its history and a testament of its legacy. An accomplished musician and a specialist in not only the history of the Spirituals and Gospel, he is a professor of choral and choir music, and skilful in the classics, blues, jazz to contemporary. He has orchestrated music from the great American gospel artists such as Thomas Dorsey, Walter and Edwin Hawkins, Andre Crouch and Richard Smallwood. Having been in the UK before, he worked in concert with our own Ken Burton (Music Director, Songs of Praise). Talking to Thomas you can feel the wave of excitement and his air of anticipation to return back to the UK.
What makes Thomas a great orator and lecturer as well as composer, conductor, musician, historian, choral and choir expert and the list goes on, is that his delivery of some of our shared and uncomfortable history of slavery and civil rights is gently tempered with humour and his speaking voice has a musical resonance that lifts and meanders like a brook. You will fail to notice time going by in the presence of this musical great.
We are just scratching the surface of this extraordinary man and in the UK we will be fortunate enough to have three years to develop a relationship with this Statesman, who can bring us Beethoven, Brahms and Black classical composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor or Black Brazilian composer, José MaurÍcio Nunes Garcia as well as his own works. We wait with expectation and I personally, would love to see a live performance of Thomas own compositions such as ‘I Dream A World’ which is such a beautiful piece and a ‘Mass: A Celebration of Love and Joy’; a top-level choral piece that does just like the title suggests, it conjures up all the feelings of jubilation.
Give yourself a treat and see him in action at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra with a collaborations of choirs including our own London Community Gospel Choir this Sunday 29 May. We are blessed that with his three-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra he will be returning to British shores for another concert on the 30 October and weeks later for a Black classical composers’ treat in November.