BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – The Colorado Music Festival at Chautauqua Auditorium will premiere a composition by Joel Thompson on Thursday inspired by the words of James Baldwin, echoing the sentiment of the influential author about the progress the nation has made and the work that still needs to be done.
“Given the sort of turmoil as it relates to race in our society, Baldwin’s writings were sort of a beacon for me, a source of comfort a way for me to focus my craft,” Thompson told CBS4 on Wednesday in Boulder. “In the world of classical music in which my identity is historically marginalized, having a space here where in which I can speak and be heard is very important, and Baldwin faced similar obstacles.”
Thompson was asked to compose a piece by the music director of the Festival, Peter Oundjian. A visiting professor at the Yale School of Music, Oundjian was familiar with Thompson’s work at the college, where he is a graduate student. Thompson joined the conductor for a rehearsal on Wednesday with the Festival’s musicians.
“There is a legacy of composers looking at the society around them, and bearing witness and commenting upon society,” Thompson said. “So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch that I’m in a classical music space doing the same thing that probably Beethoven did in his time as well.”
He believes it is no coincidence that his piece will play same night the Festival also performs Bethoven’s “Eroica” inside Chautauqua Auditorium. The Festival commissioned Thompson to address the events of the past year and help showcase classical music as a vehicle for social change. Baldwin’s words will be performed by a narrator as part of the composition, Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. Thompson says that Glaude reminds him of the work Baldwin did in the past century and believes the Princeton professor has carried the mantle for the legendary Black activist. Glaude has also written a book about Baldwin and was part of the rehearsal on Wednesday.
“He had to sort of hold society to account, while also expressing his love for what American can be and not yet achieving,” Thompson said of Baldwin. “Drawing from his words to sort of ask us to look in the mirror and see who we actually are, and determine who we can be moving forward.”
Thompson said that Baldwin wanted to highlight the Black experience in the country and as a composer who has focused his work on topics in America, he attempts to do that as well. As a guest artist for the Festival, he is grateful to get the chance to expand his reach to audiences beyond the east coast including a new crowd in Colorado.
“I think you’ll find a lot of those mixed emotions in the piece, there’s a little bit of hope looking forward but also an honest look at where we are right now,” Thompson said. “I really just want people to start thinking about interpersonal relationships and how that plays a role and how we develop this continuing fabric of America.”