Kornel Thomas Alumni Profile
by Ian Wisekal
Kornel Thomas (AD ’14), a Budapest-based conductor who also grew up there, came to music first by way of composition. In eighth grade, one of his teachers offered to let Thomas use Finale, a notation program, on his computer instead of going to recess. Thomas was hooked and studied composition through his high-school years, but as conducting took center stage in college, he had to keep his own music waiting in the wings.
In Denver, where Thomas was Assistant Director of the Lamont Symphony Orchestra and the Denver Philharmonic, Music Director of the Nebula Ensemble, and a Teaching Artist with El Sistema Colorado, he made another important connection: meeting his future wife, clarinetist Aileen Razey (MM ’15). Thomas and Razey, who is an assistant professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and an interim lecturer at Ithaca College, have racked up plenty of frequent-flier miles visiting each other as often as they can.
Since leaving Lamont, Thomas has been conducting throughout the US and Europe, most frequently as the Assistant Conductor of the Savaria Symphony in Hungary. Thomas, who has held that post since 2017, is charged with leading some subscription concerts and the bulk of the orchestra’s educational programming, which makes up nearly half of its more than 100 annual performances. In a fortuitous and unusual turn, he is now being considered for the orchestra’s Music Director position in a process that will run through 2022.
Thomas, whose father is from the States, says his favorite concert with Savaria was an all-American program: music from Bernstein’s On the Town, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and more. It was a full house, Thomas recounted: “It was really a new sensation to hear only American music. Musicians were telling me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.” The icing on the cake was that Razey, who happened to be visiting at the time, got to join the clarinet section for the performance.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year and Thomas saw his conducting engagements canceled, he booked the only flights he could to Pennsylvania: a one-way, 36-hour journey. “It was a long trip, but it was joyous,” Thomas said, beaming, “to be able to see Aileen for four whole months.” It also gave him the necessary time to revisit his original musical flame, which had lain dormant for 15 years: composition.
Getting started again was equal parts desire and necessity. “Basically,” explained Thomas, “I had a wife who said, ‘I want a piece for clarinet.’ ” He wrote one, and more new works followed; Thomas began applying for grants and entering competitions. As luck would have it, some of these bore fruit. The Palace of the Arts Budapest (MUPA) Composition Competition declared him a winner in two categories, chamber music and chamber orchestra, and Razey is slated to premiere his clarinet piece at the International Clarinet Association conference in Fort Worth this summer.
Looking ahead, Thomas is excited about his upcoming debut with the Hungarian State Opera, conducting Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and to hearing his works premiered in Texas and Hungary. In the meantime, he’s getting back to a nearly daily routine: running in the hills of Buda (across the Danube from Pest), which he has known intimately since high school. “The hills carry memories with them,” Thomas reflected, “of me as a teenager; me as a young adult. It’s my place of meditation.” Now he will have even more music to meditate on: the works of past masters he is conducting, and the music of his own fresh voice.