“Uh oh,” was what four-year-old André Thomas heard his mother utter one day when she stumbled upon him, wearing her choir robe, playing on his toy piano, and singing his little heart out.
Now a world-renowned composer of spirituals, Dr. Thomas explained that his mother was happy about his enthusiasm and loved his toddler version of “What a Fellowship,” but was upset at the realization that he was destined to be a musician. “She didn’t want her son to be a musician but she didn’t really have much of a choice,” Thomas recalled.
He began studying piano in elementary school and never stopped, receiving his Masters in Music Performance from Northwestern and his Doctorate of Musical Arts at the University of Illinois.
Thomas will conduct the Midwest unveiling of his work, “Mass: A Celebration of Love and Joy” at VocalEssence’s “What a Mighty God” concert on Nov. 17. VocalEssence Chorus & Ensemble Singers will be joined by guest soloists NaGuanda Nobles and Christian Mark Gibbs.
He considers his childhood a blessed one. “My mother adored me and my two sisters always protected me,” he shared. One of those sisters taught English and German at the local high school—the first Black woman to ever teach there.
“She was no great singer,” Thomas remembered of his mother, “but for me as a four-year-old going to church and hearing all that music and seeing the ladies who conducted the choir, I came home inspired.”
A prodigy, Thomas as a teen became minister of music at Tabernacle Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Wichita at that time. “The minister fired the music staff and put me in charge of music.”
Thomas is the author of “Way Over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual” and recently retired as professor of choral education at Florida State University and artistic director for the Tallahassee Community Chorus, where he worked for 30 years.
“Mass: A Celebration of Love and Joy”is intimately connected to his experiences in Florida. “I started it back in 2016 and it was a labor of love. It reflects all that I am and all that I love,” he explained. “I so loved those people and I knew my time with them was coming to an end and wanted to give them sort of a gift. The whole mass is dedicated to them.”
Though his music is rooted in traditional Negro Spirituals, Thomas is emphatic that “anyone can relate to spirituals. Everyone goes through trials and everyone looks for comfort.”
He added, “It’s just a part of everyday [life] so all my experiences include some form of music.” As an example, he pointed to Herb Alpert’s ‘Without Her.’
“Whenever I hear that song, immediately I’m 16 years old; I’m on a plane for the first time, heading to Europe, and I’d never been out of the country. ‘Without Her’ was there at that time, and when I hear that song I’m right back there!” Of course, music helps during challenging moments as well. “Even [through] the loss of my mother and the loss of my sisters. To have them gone and me by myself, music is always there.”
Thomas has visited Minnesota many times, performing in the Witness program for Vocal Essence while conducting the Minnesota All-State Lutheran Choir, among other things. His closest friend is the director of the St. Olaf Choir.
He said he enjoys the fact that there is always so much to do culture-wise in Minneapolis. “If you say, ‘I’m in Minneapolis and there’s nothing to do here’—you haven’t even opened the paper! There is so much stuff going on all the time!”
VocalEssence Witness’ “What a Mighty God” takes place Sun., Nov. 17, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Mahtomedi, MN. Tickets are $10-40. All ages welcome. For more info, go to vocalessence.org or call 612-371-5656.