Story by Kyle MacMillan
Composer Joel Thompson had been primarily known for his vocal, choral, and operatic music, but all that changed in 2020 when the Colorado Music Festival led the commissioning of a 20-minute work for orchestra and narrator titled To Awaken the Sleeper.
Nine American orchestras signed on as co-commissioners, and an array of other symphonies, including such notables as Atlanta and London, have performed it since the Festival premiered the piece in August 2021.
“It’s been a dream come true,” Thompson said from Texas, where he is composer-in-residence at the Houston Grand Opera. “The orchestral world is now familiar with my music, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. Getting to write for these esteemed ensembles and still be centered on my focus on our humanity and the world around us – I am very content.”
The 34-year-old Atlanta native, a member of an informal composers group known playfully as “The Blacknificent Seven,” is perhaps most widely recognized for his elegy for choir and orchestra, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
The work, which sets the final words of seven Black men who were killed by police and other authority figures, including Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin, debuted in 2015 and won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition.
For more than 40 years, Festival Music Director Peter Oundjian has served as a visiting professor at Yale University, where he got to know Thompson when the composer was doing coursework there for a still in-progress doctorate. During the pandemic, the conductor approached the composer with the idea of writing a piece for the Festival.
Oundjian, a fan of James Baldwin, had heard Thompson’s My Dungeon Shook (2020), which was inspired by the words of the celebrated author and civil rights activist who died in 1987. He asked if the composer might be willing to tackle another Baldwin-related work, and Thompson, still in the author’s thrall, jumped at the chance.
For help in choosing suitable Baldwin texts for the commission, Thompson turned to Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who wrote a best-selling 2020 book titled Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.
“I knew the emotional trajectory that I wanted the piece to take,” Thompson said, “and [Glaude] was essential to find the text, because he just has an encyclopedic knowledge of all of Baldwin’s output, so he helped me find the pieces of puzzles to put together.”
Prior to the Festival premiere, which featured Glaude as the narrator, Thompson was concerned that the piece, which is similar in structure to Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, would come across as a “bit preachy.”
“But people went along for the ride,” he said of the audience reaction in Boulder. “I think they realized that the piece was rooted in a similar philosophy that Baldwin and I share, where we really love this country, and because of that, we want to hold it to account. We want to make it more equitable for everyone.”
That same spirit of openness has extended to other cities where To Awaken the Sleeper has been performed, especially in Connecticut, where Thompson served as composer-in-residence with New Haven Symphony in 2022-23. He was invited there to speak about it at a local library, and the orchestra sponsored an exhibition in which local artists responded to the music. “I love that the piece invites the community to engage with it,” he said. “It invites response. It’s been great to see that.”
Interest in the prospective new work was so strong that the Festival was able to assemble an unusually large group of co-commissioners, including the Baltimore Symphony, Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and Seattle Symphony.
Thompson’s hometown orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, presented To Awaken the Sleeper on its opening sets of concerts of the 2022-23 season. Writing for the website ArtsATL, music critic Pierre Ruhe had considerable praise for the new work.
“Thompson’s music is alive and inquisitive, in constant dialogue with itself and the text,” Ruhe wrote. “He pays close attention to compositional craft, without wasted effort. There’s still a trace of the student in his writing – an overuse of cymbals rolled by soft mallets, like a slow-motion metallic splash, for example – but so much originality and lucid energy and stylistic confidence. He’s an important voice to follow.”
So taken was the Atlanta Symphony with To Awaken the Sleeper that it joined the New York Philharmonic and Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival in commissioning another work – this time purely instrumental – by the composer that is scheduled to be premiered in March 2024. “I feel like they got familiar with my compositional voice, and wanted to collaborate again,” Thompson said. The Colorado Music Festival feels the same way; fans of Thompson’s work will have another chance to hear new music by the composer very soon, as the Festival has commissioned a piano concerto to be premiered in its 2026 season.
In the meantime, Thompson can bask in the afterglow of what has become one of the most-performed new compositions of the past three years. “That piece is hugely successful,” Oundjian said, “and very, very powerful.”
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“So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.”