Former Atlantan brings James Baldwin’s words to the ASO stage

As a student at Brookwood High School in the early 2000s, Joel Thompson was obsessed with Rachmaninoff. To this day, his Instagram handle is “Blackmaninoff.” But he never saw himself reflected in classical music until he heard former Atlanta composer-in-residence Alvin Singleton’s work during a visit to Symphony Hall.

“I heard his ‘PraiseMaker’ sometime during high school, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a Black composer.’ That was the start of me thinking that I could possibly do this thing. Seeing examples of people that look like me making music made it feel possible,” said Thompson, who eventually studied with Christopher Theofanidis, another artist with strong Atlanta ties.

Thompson helps open the new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra season Sept. 22 as a composer and a performer, narrating his own “To Awaken the Sleeper” under the baton of guest conductor Peter Oundjian. Pianist Emmanuel Ax will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18. Rachmaninoff is also on the program.

The narration of “Sleeper” is woven together from essays and speeches by the philosopher and author James Baldwin. Thompson came to the writer in 2017 through the essay collection “The Fire Next Time,” which features Baldwin’s letter to his nephew on the anniversary of emancipation.

“It seemed like he was talking straight to me with all of the things that I was processing about America and the world at that time,” Thompson said. He then set about reading all he could and learning more about Baldwin, eventually finding the three texts that make up the composition’s narration: a National Press Club speech from the year before his death and the essays “No Name in the Street” and “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis.”

“Sleeper” is a window into issues the composer has been confronting for some time, but these challenges crystallized during the pandemic. Being away from people — “trapped indoors with ourselves,” he said — forced examination on both a personal and societal level. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and others sparked a reckoning of the inequities still present in everyday life. The incremental change that has happened since then might be frustrating to some, he said, and that’s a topic Baldwin grappled with in his writings, seeking solace in small gains versus seething about not experiencing substantive shifts in America’s foundation.

“I think he lives in that between space, and that’s sort of where I live to as an artist, wanting to bear witness but also wanting to make sure everything that I do is geared toward some sort of change,” Thompson said.

Opportunities as a Black classical composer only exist, Thompson said, because others have held the door open for him. He is now focused on leaving each opportunity “more habitable for someone else that looks like me,” and notes that is a common sentiment among a group of fellow composers that he calls the Blacknificent Seven, which includes contemporaries Jessie Montgomery and Carlos Simon.

Thompson moved to the U.S. from the Bahamas with his family at age 10, living first in Texas before settling in Atlanta. At Emory University, he pursued choral conducting as a pre-med student — “like everyone else at Emory; my parents really wanted that to pan out,” he said. Thompson eventually left medicine behind, exiting Emory with a degree in choral conducting and going off to teach in south Georgia. In the interim, he wrote the breathtaking choral work “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which focuses on some of the final phrases uttered by Black men killed by police or other authority figures, and decided to become a full-fledged composer. He is now pursuing a doctorate at Yale University, but he is still a Southerner at heart.

“I really consider Atlanta to be the closest thing to home,” he said.

The themes he writes about may not seem like an obvious choice for classical music, but Thompson said he truly feels heard on the symphony stage. He would love to not be defined as a Black artist writing music about social justice issues; he realizes, though, the importance of his position and the stature in the classical world he and other Black composers have achieved.

“We’d love to write about butterflies alighting on flowers or ships pulling into harbor like everyone else,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel an obligation to pay homage to the leaders that have made my career and my life possible — and also do that for future generations as well.”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Sept. 22 and 24. $23-115. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.