After 25 years at UM, Thomas Sleeper closes the score with an elegiac program

By Lawrence Budmen

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Thomas Sleeper conducted his final Frost Symphony Orchestra concert as a UM faculty member Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

In the fall of 1993 Thomas Sleeper took the stage of the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall to conduct the final concert of that year’s edition of Festival Miami. The conductor immediately made a strong impression in his UM debut with the high standard of playing he drew from the student orchestra and his compelling interpretive spirit.

On Friday night on the same stage, Sleeper led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in his farewell concert. Sleeper announced this week that he is retiring after a quarter-century on the school’s faculty. In pre-performance remarks, Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg described Sleeper as “a most impactful and essential faculty member” whose “inspiration over twenty five years cannot be calculated.” Berg expressed the hope that, although the program was Sleeper’s final appearance as a staff member, that it would not be his last time leading the Frost students.

That 1993 concert also set the standard and agenda for Sleeper’s performance and repertoire priorities. On that occasion he conducted the premiere of a work by Spanish composer Carlos Surinach and a Brahms symphony. In the ensuing decades, Sleeper has been a fervent advocate for contemporary composers and has led his students through much of the core symphonic repertoire, achieving remarkable results often with limited rehearsal time. 

He has also given attention to frequently neglected works by some of America’s most significant composers. (Recent seasons have seen Sleeper led revivals of scores by William Schuman and Howard Hanson.) A gifted composer in his own right, Sleeper has produced a substantial catalogue of works in many genres.

The program for Sleeper’s final concert was partially dictated by the music school’s performance schedule. With the Frost Symphony divided between the ensemble that played last week’s Frost Opera Theater production of Massenet’s Cendrillon and a thirty three member string orchestra, the concert was devoted to English music for strings (and piano solo) and, appropriately, one of Sleeper’s compositions. 

Rather than going out with a grand blast, the subdued nature of much of the music was actually in keeping with Sleeper’s self-effacing persona. Before every concert, he has acknowledged faculty members and school administrators for their contribution to training and rehearsing his players. When congratulated on a successful performance, he will credit “the kids” in the orchestra. 

Sleeper’s score Hetaera Esmeralda takes its inspiration from Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a modern telling of the Faust legend. Regardless of its literary associations, the ten-minute work is dramatic and intense. Sleeper told the audience that the solo piano drives the orchestra and the score’s changes of mood. 

After initial dark string chords around the solo piano line, the music becomes edgier with the keyboard veering into suggestions of jazz and boogie-woogie. Sudden soft, hushed passages presage a return of the opening thematic material in the strings. Agitated piano strokes turn into cluster chords before the quiet  strands of the score’s final pages. 

The piano writing is thorny and complex. Zoe Zeniodi, a conductor, pianist and former Sleeper student who has recorded the score, gave an excellent account of the work. She encompassed the shifting palette from fast keyboard strokes to sensitively phrased moments of anguished calm. Sleeper conducted a finely terraced performance of his well-crafted, rewarding work.

The English scores on the program served to illustrate the difference between a talented composer and creative genius. Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) wrote some expertly calibrated works that fall easily on the ear. His posthumously published Eclogue for piano and strings opens with a lovely, flowing theme that turns elegiac at the conclusion. Finzi’s string writing is refined and expressive. Zeniodi brought grace to the piano’s role and Sleeper drew richly textured playing from the string ensemble. 

Finzi’s Romance, one of his late works, is a pleasant sentimental vignette in the British pastoral tradition. Sleeper’s forward-moving tempo avoided heaviness, and the cellos’ tonal depth enriched the orchestra’s corporate sonority.

Zeniodi took the podium for Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor. This small masterpiece abounds in wonderfully inspired themes and instrumental felicities. Zeniodi, who told the audience that working with Sleeper changed her life, set a real Allegro tempo for the first movement, which is usually played more slowly, and drew an especially crisp response from the violins and violas. She brought out the lyrical and nostalgic strains of the Larghetto and infused vigor into the final Allegretto, the music’s folksy elements kept strongly to the fore.

The program concluded with Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony. This charming creation utilizes thematic material that Britten originally wrote in his youth. Mostly light in tone, the work is masterfully spun.

Sleeper set a brisk clip for the initial “Boisterous Bouree,” eliciting playing of high precision. The catchy pizzicato figures of the second movement were executed with élan. Some of the ensemble’s richest playing of the evening infused the “Sentimental Sarabande.” Sleeper captured the depth of feeling in the long, tragically tinged thematic curves. From the incisive opening to the final pages, Sleeper never let the pulse flag in the “Frolicsome Finale” with the fugal passages transparent and accurately articulated.

The orchestra presented Sleeper with a scrapbook of reminiscences and best wishes from current students, alumni and faculty and a bottle of his favorite liquor wrapped in pages from one of his scores. Alexander Magalong, his associate conductor and teaching assistant for the past four years, paid tribute to Sleeper’s inspirational vision as a teacher and mentor. 

Thomas Sleeper will be greatly missed. His contribution to the Frost School and Miami’s musical life has been immense. Hopefully , despite his retirement, Sleeper’s creative work and podium artistry will be heard again in South Florida.

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “After 25 years at UM, Thomas Sleeper closes the score with an elegiac program”

  1. Posted Apr 22, 2018 at 9:23 pm by Carroll Cantrell

    Congratulations on such a successful career, both as a teacher and conductor in addition to being a successful composer. Let me wish you continued success in your future endeavors.

  2. Posted Apr 27, 2018 at 10:59 pm by Ken Zeichner

    Frost students have been fortunate to perform under Maestro Sleeper’s leadership and his departure from the faculty is a big loss.

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