In general, the larger the arts institution, the slower it’s able to respond to the zeitgeist, and professional orchestras are no exception. Which makes it all the harder for such institutions to present art that reflects current events. But when the Seattle Symphony plays Joel Thompson’s “To Awaken the Sleeper” on Thursday, Dec. 2, and Saturday, Dec. 4, it’ll perform a work on the crest of the first wave of orchestral pieces inspired by the COVID-19 crisis — and other equally impactful events of 2020.
Thompson, 32, currently in his last year of Doctor of Musical Arts studies at Yale, began to contemplate his new work not only after the first wave of COVID-19 deaths, but after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. “I had been turning to [James] Baldwin for solace,” Thompson said in a recent phone interview, and he began to discuss the possibility of using the American writer’s words in a healing orchestral work for the Yale Philharmonia. The orchestra’s conductor, Peter Oundjian, encouraged the idea — and it’s Oundjian himself who will be guest-conducting the Seattle Symphony’s performances of Thompson’s work.
On the advice of Baldwin scholar Eddie Glaude, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, Thompson chose three texts to spotlight in his piece: excerpts from Baldwin’s 1972 essay “No Name in the Street”; a speech to the National Press Club Baldwin gave on December 10, 1986, a year before his death; and “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” which The New York Review of Books published in its Jan. 7, 1971, issue, which provides the piece with its title and its pointed opening words:
“So be it. We cannot awaken [the] sleeper, and God knows we have tried. We must do what we can do [to] fortify and save each other … [We know that democracy is] the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in us.”
But why set Baldwin’s words for an orchestra-backed narrator, rather than for a singer or chorus, as Thompson’s extensive experience as a choral conductor and composer might suggest? Caution about the virus-spreading potential of singing was one concern for Thompson, but even more influential was the nature of Baldwin’s own prose. As he selected the texts, Thompson admitted, “I could hear melodies to go along with it.” But he soon realized that Baldwin’s writing is so closely linked with the flowing cadences of Baldwin’s own oratorical eloquence that adding music to it “would be robbing the text of its inherent musicality.”
For the Seattle Symphony performances, the narrator will be Seattle Pacific University composer/choral conductor Stephen Newby.
Thompson did the bulk of the work on “To Awaken the Sleeper,” a Seattle Symphony co-commission, this past spring and completed it in July. Glaude himself was the narrator for the August 2021 premiere, conducted by Oundjian, at the Colorado Music Festival, of which Oundjian is music director. (Further performances of the piece are scheduled for Atlanta, Kansas City and Indianapolis.) Selecting works for his Seattle Symphony guest-conducting gig, Oundjian surrounded Thompson’s work with music by Maurice Ravel; another African American composer, Florence Price; and the brief, punchy Symphony No. 1 (1936) by Samuel Barber.
The busy young composer, unfortunately, will not be in Seattle; he’ll be in Houston for the Dec. 9 premiere of his opera “The Snowy Day,” based on the beloved 1962 children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats. His work and Price’s are the first two of seven scheduled pieces by African American composers in this season’s main concert series.