In May 2023, under Music Director Jader Bignamini, the DSO performed the world premiere of Grammy-nominated composer, curator, and activist Carlos Simon’s new trombone concerto, Troubled Water. Written for DSO Principal Trombone Kenneth Thompkins, the piece is inspired by the many stories, accounts, and experiences of enslaved people seeking freedom at any cost on the Underground Railroad. We sat down with Simon and Thompkins to learn more.
“In January 2020, Ken asked me to write a piece for him about the Underground Railroad,” said Simon. “Michigan was one of the last states for enslaved people to reach before getting to freedom in Canada, and it was important for us to tell this story.”
The work was initially conceived as a small chamber work for piano and trombone, but eventually evolved to a concerto. “I now had use of the full orchestra,” said Simon. “And not just any orchestra— this is the DSO, so it was really a dream to have 25 minutes to play with this amazing orchestra and to utilize the masterful skills of Ken Thompkins.”
During the creation process, Thompkins would walk along the Detroit Riverwalk in the cold winter months, passing by The Gateway to Freedom, the international memorial to the Underground Railroad by Ed Dwight in Hart Plaza. Thompkins passed the statue many times without paying much attention, until one day pausing for a closer look.
He examined the bronze sculpture and the faces of the freedom seekers awaiting transport to Canada—faces of fear, anguish, and hope—bursting with emotion. He began to think about what it was like in Detroit in the 19th century. What did the river look like? Where did they stay?
“Water is such an important element of the travel of enslaved people to freedom,” said Thompkins. “Most of the major Underground Railroad routes are along the river or waterways. Musically, you think about water and the many types of elements that could be used in a composition. When I thought of a composer and their use of color to bring the orchestra to life to evoke the emotions that someone might feel going through this experience, I thought of Carlos because he’s a very colorful, deep composer.”
As the piece developed, Simon and Thompkins continued to center on the first-hand sensory experience of people seeking freedom. In the dead of night, as they were moving, what did they see? The stars? And what did they hear?
We know that Harriet Tubman used the call of an owl to alert refugees and freedom seekers that it was safe to come out of hiding and continue their journey, a sound which Simon recreates in the orchestral texture of Troubled Water.
“The use of the owl call really sheds light on the ingenuity of these amazing people,” said Simon. “It’s a different aspect that we don’t normally hear in the story of the Underground Railroad.”
“It’s so easy to look at things two-dimensionally and not see the full humanity of a group of people,” added Thompkins. “By fleshing out these types of stories and looking at things differently, hopefully we’ll bring more humanity to our culture and have less fear and more empathy.”
“For my take, as a composer, I think it’s important to document the times in which we live,” added Simon. “You can’t really do that without bringing issues to the forefront that happened in history and drawing a correlation. I’ve always wanted to understand how I fit within the historical landscape as a Black man, as a Black composer, and as an American.”
Simon is the current Composer-in- Residence for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and has completed commissions for the likes of the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics. His latest album, Requiem for the Enslaved, is a multi-genre musical tribute to commemorate the stories of the 272 enslaved men, women, and children sold in 1838 by Georgetown University, and was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
“All music was once new music,” said Simon. “It’s important to understand that for the art form to live on, new works have to be created.”
“People have different stories and the stories that we’re telling each other through music are beyond words,” added Thompkins. “It’s getting into emotions— we can express things we can’t say. Each generation, each group of people, has different things that need to be expressed and keep on evolving. I’m always excited to hear different pieces, new pieces, new compositions. It’s a great honor to be involved with a commissioning project and I’m very happy to be doing this with Carlos, Jader, and my DSO colleagues, who are extremely sensitive, attentive, and musical,” said Thompkins. “I always compare the DSO to driving a Porsche and a Cadillac at the same time—you have that power and then you have the luxury—it’s just fantastic.”
“ Performing a commission is completely different than performing a work that’s been done before and written for someone else. Many themes in this music are based on spirituals, so this is music that, in some form, I’ve heard all my life. To be able to bring this to the concert stage as a concerto is great. There’s a lot of personal investment for me to honor this music in a way that’s appropriate and tells a story that is personal and human and relatable to everybody. ”Kenneth Thompkins, DSO Principal Trombone
A DSO member since 1997, Thompkins took part in the DSO’s African American Orchestra Fellowship and was appointed to his role by then-Music Director Neeme Järvi. He has since enjoyed a strong career in Detroit and passes his knowledge to the next generation of musicians through performances and master classes at institutions including the University of Michigan.
Simon is also connected to the U of M as an alum, and in 2021 received the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, the highest honor bestowed by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, recognizing extraordinary classical Black and Latinx musicians.
“It’s sort of a dream come true because this is my first commission with the DSO,” said Simon. “I’m over the moon and cannot wait to hear my music in Orchestra Hall, the same hall where I attended many concerts as a graduate student.” He also looks forward to working with Bignamini for the first time.
“Jader is a fantastic musician, so he has extremely high standards,” said Thompkins. “Whenever you start working on a new piece of music, there will always be something that changes your perspective. Conductors are often the person that’s going to hear it a little bit differently than you as a soloist may hear it, or maybe even Carlos. It’s always interesting to have that dynamic—that third person involved on the podium. That interaction is always very fascinating.”
So as composers, musicians, and conductors may all hear something different, Simon invites audiences to attend the premiere with an open mind and open ears. The piece evokes sounds of natural elements and transportation, while also referencing traditional spirituals like “Steal Away” and “Wade in the Water.”
“I come from a very long line of preachers,” said Simon. “I saw how powerful leadership was in the community through the church and how important it was for people who were looking for a sense of connection and empowerment. That music has the ability to connect people and put a mirror up in front of the audience and reflect something that they may not have seen—and to choose to really be honest. I grew up in church and saw my father preach every Sunday, putting a mirror in front of his congregation and saying, ‘this is what I see, and I think you could be better,’ and that’s something I draw from every day through my music and lifestyle.”
Though Troubled Water includes familiar sounds, Simon hopes that audiences will also have a new experience with the music. “I like to think of music as going to an art exhibit,” said Simon. “When an artist depicts something from real life, it’s not always a literal representation of the thing—it can be more abstracted. That’s what I envision for this piece. I want to use different tools like the quotes from the spirituals to enhance one’s understanding of the Underground Railroad.”
“In American culture, what people see on TV of African Americans is often negative,” added Thompkins. “If you look at Civil Rights footage that is commonly shown, people are being abused or you might see a lynching or a bombing. I remember when I was a kid and I saw Roots and how traumatic it was seeing people treated like that. Part of this story is to tell a different side of Black people in America. There’s also love, courage, hope, ingenuity, and bravery. This is not only a message of the Underground Railroad, but also a message of hope.”
Carlos Simon's "Troubled Water" World Premiere on DSO ReplayWatch Now
The DSO performed the world premiere of Troubled Water on the PVS Classical Series on May 5–7, 2023 at Orchestra Hall. The program was conducted by Music Director Jader Bignamini and also included Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
PVS Classical Series
BEETHOVEN’S EIGHTH & SIMON’S TROMBONE CONCERTO
Friday, May 5 at 10:45 a.m.
Saturday, May 6 at 8 p.m
Sunday, May 7 at 3 p.m.
Jader Bignamini, conductor
Kenneth Thompkins, trombone
JOHANNES BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Haydn
CARLOS SIMON Troubled Water for Trombone and Orchestra (World Premiere, commissioned by the DSO)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 8