Thomas Sleeper 1956-2022

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper conducted the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra for over 25 years.

Composer, conductor and educator, Thomas Sleeper passed away on Saturday. He was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2019.  

Sleeper was 66 but had accomplished more in that lifetime than artists decades older. For a quarter century (from 1993 to 2018), Sleeper was a faculty member at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and conductor of the Frost Symphony Orchestra. His influence and impact on the college’s music program was immense. While pursuing an active teaching and performing career, Sleeper also created a large and diverse body of compositions in multiple genres.

Sleeper was born in Wagoner, Oklahoma and studied at the University of Texas, receiving his B.A. degree from that institution. Further studies at Southern Methodist University brought a Master of Music degree. Prior to coming to UM, he taught and led the orchestra at Stetson University in Deland, Florida.

Sleeper made his presence felt immediately on the Coral Gables campus. His debut at the final concert of the 1993 Festival Miami firmly encompassed Sleeper’s repertoire priorities. He led the premiere of Spanish composer Carlos Surinach’s Symphonic Melismas  and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. 

Playing contemporary music and giving the instrumental students a firm grounding in the standard symphonic literature would become trademarks of his programming. Performing new or recent works by Frost faculty members and such prominent composers as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Roberto Sierra, Thomas Ludwig and Robert Xavier Rodriquez and revivals of important scores by neglected American masters like William  Schuman, Howard Hanson, Carl Ruggles and Paul Creston became hallmarks of Sleeper’s UM concerts.  

Although the university’s orchestra had given some fine performances prior to his arrival, there were persistent problems with intonation, precision and cohesiveness, as there often is with student ensembles. From that very first concert, Sleeper inspired the players to exceed their previous efforts. As the level of players in the orchestra improved, he was able to lead memorable traversals of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Das lied van der Erde as well as complex contemporary works like Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. (A search under his name in the SFCR archive will elicit many of his concerts from the past 13 years. SFCR did what turned out to be Sleeper’s final interview in 2021.)

Never one to bask in the spotlight, Sleeper always thanked the Frost faculty and administration at concerts. When congratulated after a performance, he would tell you how proud he was of ‘’the kids.” 

At his farewell concert in 2018 and in the comments section of South Florida Classical Review, many of Sleeper’s fellow faculty members and former students attested to his great influence on their lives and careers, resulting from his contribution as teacher, artist and human being. He raised musical standards throughout the school’s music department. A delightful 1997 production of Verdi’s Falstaff by the opera department under Sleeper’s baton displayed his unique ability to draw the very best results from myriad forces.

Sleeper was also conductor of the Florida Youth Orchestra from 1993 to 2020. During the 1990’s and 2000’s, he had a strong musical presence in China as artistic advisor of the China-Wuhan Symphony. In 1992, he led the Central Philharmonic in the first Chinese performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Sleeper’s extensive creative output may in time prove even greater than his academic legacy. Numerous orchestral, solo instrumental and chamber works, operas and film scores comprise his multi-faceted catalogue. 

For Frost faculty members, he wrote concertos for viola, trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone, enriching the literature for those instruments. His Chamber Symphony, one of Sleeper’ finest compositions, was written for the 2015 farewell concert of Frost Wind Ensemble director Gary Green. His Violin Concerto (2015), created for Miami based violinist Huifang Chen, can stand comparison with the best concertos for the instrument written by major twentieth century composers. 

In 2012, Sleeper conceived a Concerto for Flute and Flute Orchestra for former faculty member Trudy Kane and her studio of students. A wonderful gift to flutists, the score is an utter delight, telegraphing a kaleidoscopic range of colors and melodic inspiration that ranges from the pensive to riotously high spirited. His best compositions meld contemporary influences with a classical framework in a masterful manner.

Sleeper is survived by his wife, the artist Sherri Tan and four children. Arrangements are pending.


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3 Responses to “Thomas Sleeper 1956-2022”

  1. Posted Oct 18, 2022 at 1:32 pm by Gary Green

    Thomas Sleeper was a giant of human kindness and a spirit keeping watch over all the rest of us. That same spirit will continue to guide and provide light for the remainder of our days.

    I am blessed, as with so many, to have been a friend and student of his for so many years. We all miss him but are better for the journey with Thomas Sleeper.

  2. Posted Oct 18, 2022 at 7:49 pm by Robert Carnochan

    I am deeply, deeply saddened by Thom’s passing. I am extremely grateful to him for his music and music making, his intense love and dedication to and for all our students, his fearless leadership within our school, his deep intellect, and above all, his loyal friendship. I will forever remember Thom Sleeper as a passionate human, musician, friend, and confidant.

    We should all aspire to leading a life of such unbridled love and dedication for those who come in and out of our lives, be it family, friends, colleagues and especially our students! As Thom always said about teaching, “We have 3 priorities: 1) our students, 2) our students and 3) our students! RIGHT ON, MY FRIEND!!!

  3. Posted Oct 19, 2022 at 8:19 am by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Thomas Sleeper’s passing leaves a void in the South Florida music and academic scene that will be difficult if not impossible to fill.

    Thom was one of the first people I met when I moved to South Florida in the late summer of 2000 to take the classical critic job at the Sun-Sentinel. I did an interview with him to preview the world premiere of his (excellent) Horn Concerto at Festival Miami that fall. I found him talented, honest, funny and wonderfully unpretentious. We hit it off immediately and remained friends and colleagues during the rest of my nine years in Florida as well as after I moved back to Chicago.

    In addition to being a dedicated teacher, Thom was a hugely underrated conductor. It never ceased to amaze me what kind of remarkably polished and impressive results he would always get at the opening concert of Festival Miami every fall, leading an orchestra of students that had only been playing together for a couple weeks, many of whom were not even music majors. I also appreciated his consistent advocacy for music by American composers, past and present.

    Thom was also an early and consistent supporter of South Florida Classical Review from the start in 2008, with encouragement, advertising, and behind-the-scenes lobbying for SFCR. His advocacy was most appreciated in those dark early days when it wasn’t at all clear that this kind of specifically targeted online arts journalism could survive, let alone thrive.

    Thom was, of course, a prolific composer himself in many genres and his music deserves to be performed much more widely than it has been. I hope South Florida music ensembles, orchestras and institutions will take this sad occasion to pay tribute to Thom Sleeper by performing and giving fresh life to his music.

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Tue Oct 18, 2022
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