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Composer Omar Thomas returns to ISU for 5th anniversary of 'Come Sunday'

Two men smile at the camera inside a radio studio
Lauren Warnecke
Composer Omar Thomas, left, visits Illinois State University this week to revive his 2018 suite, "Come Sunday," which premiered at ISU. Director of Bands Tony Marinello will conduct the piece Wednesday on its fifth anniversary.

As the fall semester approaches its end, the Illinois State University School of Music is in concert mode. ISU’s advanced ensemble, the Wind Symphony, plays Wednesday evening at the Center for Performing Arts, with Omar Thomas’ “Come Sunday” as a program highlight.

This is not the first time ISU Band has played “Come Sunday.” Director of Bands Tony Marinello commissioned the piece for its world premiere in 2018, and Thomas is back this week to revive the two-part suite referencing music from the Black church. The concert marks five years to the day since “Come Sunday’s” premiere.

In the years since, Thomas has quickly risen to the top of the band world. He began his academic career at Berklee College of Music at age 23 and currently teaches composition and jazz studies at University of Texas-Austin. And he writes music at a feverish pace, with nearly 20 published works in as many years.

“Come Sunday” is special, though. It’s a piece Thomas had been thinking about for 15 years before writing it.

“The reason I thought about this piece for so long is because it was baffling to me that it didn’t already exist,” Thomas said in an interview for WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

The spark for “Come Sunday” is a Hammond B-3 electric organ, an instrument synonymous with musical traditions in the Black church (popularized in the secular music scene by Booker T. Jones—not to mention English rock band Procol Harum’s 1967 hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”). But recreating the riffs and runs of gospel organ for concert band was, according to Thomas, something entirely new.

“I said, I’m going to write this thing just because nobody else has done it,” he said. “And it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to me.”

Opening with a single saxophone dancing on a resonant brass chorale, “Come Sunday’s” first movement, “Testimony,” is about preparing to receive the Lord. The second section, “Shout!” is a joyful noise of tambourine, handclapping, swirling scales in the woodwinds and a rip-roaring tuba bassline echoed by an electric bass guitar.

“There’s this long tradition of sacred music that exists for wind ensemble,” Thomas said. “None of it was told from the Black church perspective, which is mind-blowing to me.”

Getting the bassoonists to get down

Growing up as a trombonist, Thomas experienced standard band repertoire, which is often siloed from jazz traditions. To gain access to jazz, blues and gospel, young musicians often have to join a jazz band—which may exclude non-traditional instruments.

“We have conflated ensemble with genre,” Thomas said. “One of the most absolutely amazing and swinging musicians I’ve ever heard in my life was a violinist. I’m really about deconstructing this idea of these instruments and these ensembles are supposed to do this thing. That doesn’t honor the musicianship of the person who is bringing this inanimate object to life.”

Until that sentiment is the norm, musicians playing jazz on non-traditional instruments may have a steep learning curve—something Marinello has worked to address both times ISU Wind Ensemble has tackled “Come Sunday.”

“The students have totally bought into the idea that this is not our music,” he said, “but it is our job to do our best to learn that style.”

As part of the learning process, Marinello pulled internet resources and recruited musicians from City of Refuge Ministries in Bloomington to work with students. Thomas’ visit is part of their final preparations before Wednesday’s concert.

Connecting with the community

Thomas and Marinello said there’s more appetite for new works and experimentation in band than symphony orchestras, who are more beholden to centuries of classical repertoire.

“Symphony orchestras are beholden to different masters,” Thomas said.

While band music is not as beholden to ticket buyers—and therefore able to swing for the fences and take more risks—the professional world is confined almost entirely confined to universities.

“How do we now actually engage in the communities in which we’re a part of?” said Thomas. “How do we keep this from being our insular thing that we have on our stages and at our conferences, and how can we actually be a part of what music is supposed to be? That’s the next step.”

For Marinello, that means reducing barriers to participation, whether you’re a player or an audience members. He’d like to see more options for high-quality community bands and wants audiences to feel comfortable coming to ISU to see music.

“Even with this piece in particular, we were talking about the transition from the first to the second movement,” Marinello said.

In Euro-centric traditions, it is customary to withhold applause between movements. Audience members have been chastised for not knowing this. Some conductors make the pause as brief as possible or hold their arms up, refusing to acknowledge the audience to communicate this unwritten rule.

“Honestly, I hope that’s completely taken care of by itself because people are going nuts after the first movement,” Marinello said. “I hope we have to sit there and wait for them to calm back down. We encourage you to react during this piece. Please react. That’s why it was written.”

The Illinois State University Wind Ensemble plays at 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Center for Performing Arts, 351 S. School St., Normal. In addition to “Come Sunday,” the band will perform works by Gustav Holst, Julie Girous, Steven Bryant and David Gillingham, with faculty soloist Anne McNamara. Tickets are $10.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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