Hard-working conductor a triple-threat advantage for UM’s Frost School

By David Fleshler


With opening night two weeks away, the young musicians of the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra are sitting on stage in T-shirts and shorts and playing through a rapid, ominous passage from Robert Schumann’s Faust Overture.

Slumped in a seat in the empty hall, listening intently as his star conducting student Zoe Zeniodi wields the baton, is Thomas Sleeper, Frost’s professor of conducting, prolific composer and a master of drawing the best from student ensembles. Suddenly he springs up and walks toward the stage.

“Zoe, I think it falls off after the sforzando,” he said. “Yeah, it’s lost all its intensity. Think of it as a big line, as it repeats itself and drops off. Where it repeats itself in piano, literally drop off.”

She struck up the orchestra again, and now the passage sounded far different, darker, more driving and sinister. Sleeper, who will lead the orchestra Oct. 2 to open the university’s annual concert series Festival Miami, has shown a striking ability to draw performances of genuine symphonic sweep and grandeur from the student orchestra. Last season, he led the Frost Symphony in Mahler’s monumental Fifth Symphony, producing an edgy, exciting performance that provided a much more satisfying account than might be expected from a non-professional ensemble.

A big man with long dark hair that flies around his shoulders as he conducts, Sleeper is an academic triple-threat, as a highly sought-after conducting teacher and a well-regarded composer. But it will be his ability as a conductor that will be on display in the festival opening, as he leads the orchestra in the Brahms Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Frost piano faculty chairman Tian Ying at the keyboard.

“He has so much breadth and so much depth. He’s really a phenomenal resource as a conductor, composer and human being,” said William Hipp, former dean of the university’s Frost School of Music, who hired Sleeper. “He’s very passionate and he’s very articulate….The first festival concert is always a major challenge, it’s just so soon after the fall semester has started.”

Festival Miami, the traditional opener for the fall concert season, runs from Oct. 2 to Oct. 30, with classical and jazz performances by Frost faculty members and students, as well as concerts by visiting performers.

In conversation, Sleeper is affable, informal, self-deprecatory. But in rehearsal, where most of a conductor’s real work is done, he is all business—a demanding, focused leader devoted the broad lines of a work as well as the details. In a rehearsal that morning of the Brahms symphony, he advised the musicians to hold back some volume from forte passages to reserve power for the fortissimo ones, and told them how to make little separations between strongly marked notes while focusing on the work’s long phrases.

“You, right now, are working with Brahms,” he said. “This comes from Brahms’ mind. It’s like he wrote you a letter. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to do this.”

Sleeper says there are both challenges and opportunities in working with musicians who are not yet seasoned professionals. His conducting technique must be “more surgical,” he says, with a precise, easy-to-follow beat. “With a professional orchestra you can toss that aside and shape each phrase,” he said. But the young players also bring an enthusiasm to the music that may be harder to find among veteran orchestral musicians contemplating their 29th performance of Beethoven’s Seventh.

“It’s like pro ball versus college,” he said. “For most of these people it’s the first time they’re playing these works, and it’s very exciting for them.”

Sleeper has an unusually broad musical culture. As a young bass trombone player in Oklahoma and Texas, he was drawn more to jazz and rock. He found his way to classical music by the weird route of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. “I heard it in high school in a music history course,” he said. “It really rocked my world.”

The university selects just a single student from dozens of applicants to pursue a doctorate in conducting. Zoe Zeniodi, a pianist who is Sleeper’s current student, describes Sleeper as a “magnificent teacher” with a sharp musical mind, as well as a generous mentor who finds opportunities for her to conduct. In the Festival Miami opening concert, for example, she will lead the orchestra in the Faust Overture. “I don’t think many people would do that for their students,” she said.

The morning of the rehearsal, she talked about how they worked on Faust. “We talked about specific phrasing, and where each phrase goes, and what I need to do to show that, physically and emotionally,” she said. “He is a great mentor. He has really opened up my ears. I hear much more now.”

As a composer, Sleeper has produced several well-received works, including a symphony, operas and concertos, including a horn concerto commissioned by a member of the Berlin Philharmonic.

“What is special about Thomas’ music is that it is accessible to a mainstream audience with its driving rhythms and melodic lines, yet it is full of layers of complexities and hidden references to past writers, historical events etc.,” said Lisa Crawford, executive director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned a song cycle on texts by Ernest Hemingway, in an email. “It is like reading Thomas Mann’s Faust. You can just read and follow the story line or you can delve deeper into the complexities of the text.”

Like many composers, Sleeper is forced to fit his compositional work in with his day job. He has a full family life, with his wife Sherri, a visual artist, and a son and three daughters, ranging in age from three to 21. Still he remains a driven man, always hard at work. He is considering another opera, and is finishing his second symphony. “I named the first one Symphony No. 1,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

Festival Miami runs from Oct. 2 to Oct. 30. For a schedule and tickets, go to www.music.miami.edu/festivalmiami or call 305-284-4940.

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2 Responses to “Hard-working conductor a triple-threat advantage for UM’s Frost School”

  1. Posted Sep 25, 2009 at 11:18 am by Maria Letona

    Thank you, Mr. Flesher, for writing this well-deserved and long overdue article on Thom Sleeper. Thom has been a tremendous asset since his arrival to Miami and we are very lucky to have him here. Thom is very much respected and admired by all.

  2. Posted Sep 25, 2009 at 3:51 pm by Marie Higgins-Sublette

    If it is acceptable for a family member, albeit a somewhat remote family member, to attest to Thomas’ affability and laid-back style, I shall do so now. It is a privilege to have him as a brother-in-law to my son-in-law, therefore my daughter’s son-in-law. As I have enjoyed many of UM’s School of Music performances, afternoons and evenings, for as many years as I have been on the East Coast, I now have the added pleasure of seeing Thomas on stage waving his baton, and looking anything but laid-back.

    Marie Higgins-Sublette

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