Portia Thomas

Inspired by the choir conductors in his local Baptist church, a four-year-old André J. Thomas once donned his mother’s choir robe, sat down at a piano bench and waved his hands at an imaginary choir. Ten years later, the church’s minister put him in charge of the choir.

Now, Thomas is among the profession’s most well-renowned choral conductors.

On Oct. 28, Martin Jean, director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, announced Thomas’s appointment to the Institute of Sacred Music as a Visiting Professor of Choral Conducting and Interim Conductor of Yale Camerata for the 2020–21 season.

“I was doomed to love choral music and love people and to make music in this way,” Thomas said. “Music is my tool to reach people, and it thrills me.”

Thomas’s time at Yale will follow the retirement of Marguerite Brooks after her long tenure at the University. Brooks currently serves as director of the choral conducting program at the School of Music and directs the choral music program at the Institute of Sacred Music. She founded the Yale Camerata in 1985 and has conducted it ever since.

“Thomas is a legend as a conductor, a master teacher and a supremely gifted musician,” Brooks said. “He’s one of the most elegant, competent and expressive conductors of both instruments and vocalists that I’ve ever known and is truly venerable nationally and internationally.”

Most recently, Thomas completed a 35-year tenure as the Owen F. Sellers Professor of Music, director of choral activities and professor of music education at Florida State University. Thomas has served as a choral clinician and director on five continents. He earned degrees from Friends University, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois.

Thomas is also a celebrated composer and educator. In March 2020, he will conduct a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra featuring a mass he composed. Although he has an international reputation, he has conducted middle and high school All-State Orchestras in 48 states. The African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians organization honored Thomas as a “Living Legend” for his arrangements of spirituals — songs of a genre drawing from an African-American oral tradition — and commitment to choral education.

In addition to teaching first-year graduate students in choral conducting, Thomas will continue Brooks’ legacy with the Camerata by leading the ensemble in four major concerts.

Donald Kohn, former chairman of dentistry at the Yale New Haven Hospital, has sung with the Camerata for almost 20 years. He said the ensemble is an “extraordinary mix of students and community singers and professional musicians from all different disciplines.”

“A lot of us are feeling tremendous relief that Yale has acknowledged how important the choral music community has become to the cultural life of New Haven and Yale,” Kohn said. “It’s particularly exciting that we have an interim conductor at the level of Dr. Thomas.”

Although Brooks founded the ensemble, she said that the Camerata exists “as itself and belongs only to itself, not to any one person.” She added that “the role and vision of any chorus is to do good music that moves people and that provides a community within which to do that.”

Thomas hopes to program a diverse selection of repertoire. He will include his own music and music by American composers and composers of color.

“We are thrilled that Thomas will help carry forward Maggie Brooks’ inspired leadership of the Camerata,” said Jeffrey Douma, conductor of the Yale Glee Club. Douma will serve as the coordinator of the choral conducting program during the interim year.

During his year at Yale, Thomas will commute between New Haven and his home in Jacksonville.

 

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu