Thomas teaches culture through song

André Thomas, who has conducted choirs in Europe and China, will be conducting the Guilderland High School Concert Choir on March 30 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He is also a  composer and arranger, and the Guilderland choir will be singing a spiritual and a Ghanaian folk song, both of which he arranged.

Music can allow singers to transcend their own culture to understand another.

That’s the philosophy embodied by André Thomas, a music professor at Florida State University who has conducted choirs throughout the world and who, in March, will conduct the Guilderland High School Concert Choir at Carnegie Hall.

“We’ll take a little trip around the world,” said Thomas this week.

For the repertoire the Guilderland choir will perform, Thomas has selected “shorter octavo pieces to give them a glimpse of history,” he said.

“You can’t think of chorale music without Handel,” Thomas said of George Frideric Handel, the 18th-Century Baroque composer. He’s also chosen a piece by the English composer, Edward William Elgar, who reached prominence at the turn of the 18th to 19th century.

And Thomas has selected two new pieces that will be making their New York premiere with the Guilderland singers.

One, called  “Nyon Nyon,” is by the American composer, Jake Runestad. “It’s a terrific piece, especially for young people, exploring 20th-Century harmony,” he said.

The piece includes elements of jazz and beat-boxing, which Thomas described as making the sounds of percussion instruments with the voice.

“Nyon Nyon” also includes some chants. “It’s terribly exciting,” he said.

Another piece, which will be making its national premiere, is by Raymond Rise

The Guilderland students will also sing a Ghanaian folk song Thomas arranged called “Daa Naa Se, which roughly translates as “We Give Thanks.”

The choir will also sing a spiritual Thomas arranged. Spirituals have become a large part of his life’s work but he wasn’t always fond of them. He wrote a book in 2007 called Way Over In Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual.

“You must understand the culture,” Thomas said. “When you teach the piece, you teach the culture.”

Embracing heritage

Thomas grew up in Wichita, Kansas; in the early 1960s, he said, “Schools were still segregated…I integrated the junior-high school I went to…They put me on the basketball team because I was tall and I was black.”

He didn’t excel at basketball, but music was a different story.

“All of a sudden, I had a place where my race didn’t matter,” said Thomas.

Thomas began his professional career when he was 14 and was asked to take over his church choir.

He started teaching public school when he was 20.

In his youth, Thomas hated spirituals. “They provided opportunity for white people to make fun of black people,” he said.

After he started college, at the age of 16, at the Friends University, he met Jester Hairston, who had been with the Hall Johnson choir and had a wide and varied career as a Hollywood conductor and arranger and as a character actor — playing a self-styled socialite on Amos ’n’ Andy in the 1950s, and the wise-cracking Rolly on the 1980s sitcom Amen.

“When Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, that was Jester singing,” said Thomas. Hairston, who arranged or composed more than 300 choral spirituals, wrote and arranged the song “Amen” for Lilies of the Field and dubbed the singing for Poitier.

Hairston said he wanted to make his mark in folk songs because his grandparents were slaves, and he wanted to keep that music alive. He died in 2000 at the age of 98.

Thomas described himself before he met Hairston as “an obnoxious little boy embarrassed of his heritage.”  Hairston, he said, “gave me pride in our heritage.”

Thomas made it his mission to help teachers understand spirituals, and to conduct choirs to sing them.

His book has become accepted as the leading authority on the genre.

Thomas began arranging the sorts of spirituals and gospel music he had heard as a child. His first such arrangement, of “Keep Your Lamps,” was published in 1982 and is still going strong — 35,000 copies were sold last year, Thomas said.

Respect for place

Two years ago, Thomas was at an African choral festival in Ghana. “I was immensely struck by being there,” he said, as choirs from all over the west coast of Africa performed.

Thomas described the experience as “life-changing.”

In Benin, he made a trip to see the castle built along the Atlantic. “It was all pristine white — beautiful,” he said.

He heard a choir sing “O, Freedom” and he walked to the Place of No Return.

This was where hundreds and hundreds of male slaves were kept, crammed together in inhumane conditions, with troughs for urination, before being shipped from Africa, said Thomas. He described his visit there as “absolutely powerful.”

It prompted him to get a DNA test to discover his own ancestry. He learned his ancestors, for the most part, came from that region — with 10 percent from Ireland.

“I gained a different understanding of slavery,” Thomas said. Before his visit to Africa, his understanding “didn’t go across the ocean.”

Many conductors don’t see themselves as teachers, but Thomas does.

Since now he predominantly works with graduate students, Thomas likes directing high school choirs, because, he says, “They keep me fresh with their ideas.”

“It’s just inspirational to see them light up in an uninhibited way,” he said. “When the music or understanding clicks for them, they don’t try to disguise it.”

There can be more joy working with a youth choir than with a professional choir, he said.

And performing at Carnegie Hall, as the Guilderland Choir has been invited to do on March 30 since winning gold medals at Heritage Festivals, is a pinnacle for any musician.

Carnegie Hall has wonderful acoustics, Thomas said, further enhanced by a recent renovation.

He has conducted at concert halls around the world. “Many other halls are multi-purpose,” he said, designed for opera or musical shows as well as for concerts. “Carnegie Hall was built to be a concert hall,” he said, noting it has three different auditoriums.

Aside from being built for acoustics, Carnegie Hall, Thomas said, is one of the great halls in the world where superb music has premiered and it has “attracted the best musicians that ever lived.”

“Carnegie Hall is at the top, if not the very top. I stress to kids, they need to bring their very best, out of respect for the hall.”

Thomas recalls the first time he went to the Maestro Suite — the way he was greeted, the way his coat was taken, and most especially the portraits of great composers that hung on the wall: Brahms, Mahler, Bernstein, Koussevitzky.

“I thought, ‘My God, I’m in their dressing room.”

He was filled with respect for where he was — and also nervous.

Thomas went on, “There’s an old saying: ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice, practice, practice.’”

He stresses that with the students he conducts: “We’ve got to practice, practice practice.”

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