It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Francis Thorne, ACO’s beloved co-founder. Francis passed away peacefully in hospice care in Connecticut on March 7, 2017. He was 94.
Francis was one of America’s most accomplished composers, creative arts administrators, sophisticated musical patrons, and civic-minded musical citizens. To read more about his illustrious life, please see his obituary in The New York Times.
Below are some reflections by a few of those at ACO who knew Francis best. We will dedicate our March 24 concert at Carnegie Hall — featuring Steve Reich’s Tehillim and three world premieres by diverse composers — to his memory.
Dennis Russell Davies, ACO Conductor Laureate
Franny and I met for the first time (this is what we both seemed to remember) at Bradley’s in the early ’70s where our mutual friend Hall Overton had invited us to meet and hear Thelonius Monk. Standing with those three tall guys, I remember being tongue-tied, but immediately liking the quiet, soft-spoken, yet obviously perceptive Francis Thorne. Hall tragically passed away a couple of years later and Franny became first my jazz mentor, and then an unbelievably rich source of great American music from the 19th century to the present. Although I’m often credited as a co-founder of the American Composers Orchestra, and am very proud of being in on the ground floor as conductor, it was in all honesty, all Franny. His quiet and persistent dedication coupled with his knowledge and generosity toward other composers and other music than his own was the rock that the ACO’s foundation could be built on. We did share the conviction that the success of the orchestra depended on an openness to all composers from all regions and musical philosophies with a commitment to the great American symphonic tradition. Above all, we were ready to take risks with commissions, and the quality of the audience meant more than the numbers.
Franny has left American Music a great legacy through his own varied and vital compositions, but especially as the visionary who brought American symphonic music in from the cold. His friendship was a gift to us all.
Derek Bermel, ACO Artistic Director
Performing with Francis Thorne was a special treat for me. When he discovered that I could play over changes, Francis recruited me to perform with him at the ACO benefit. We played for several years in the late ’90s—Francis comping chords on the piano while crooning in his inimitable tenor, me on the licorice stick, ACO’s long-time percussionist James Saporito sizzling on the trap set. Simultaneously charismatic and self-effacing, Francis regaled the audience with tales of a bygone era: performing in front of Duke Ellington, studying with Overton and Diamond, encounters with Copland, Wolpe, Bernstein, and many others. We played Cole Porter, Rodgers, Ellington, Gershwin, Berlin, and even the occasional Thorne tune. What a pleasure for me—brash whippersnapper that I was—to be included in his greatest joy, jamming on the great American songbook in front of a live audience, in the service of other composers. And what a privilege it was for me to befriend this gem of a gentleman, a quiet visionary and a truly classy guy. Miss you, Francis.
Robert Beaser, ACO Artistic Director Laureate
Francis Thorne’s influence on American music in the latter half of the 20th century has been profound. Both as a composer of highly original music which combines his love of mid-century vernacular bebop with progressive modernist contemporary trends, and as the founder—and heart and soul—of the American Composers Orchestra, Thorne’s legacy is singular. The ACO became under his leadership a major force in curating the rich orchestral heritage of this country, as well as commissioning the creation of new works by generations of emerging composers. Francis was a mentor to countless young composers, and I count myself among the lucky who were given an opportunity to shine under his watch. He was one of the most gentle, caring and kind men, and his gifts of bringing people together from all walks of life, for the cause of championing American orchestral music is the stuff of legends.
Alvin Singleton, ACO Board Member and Artistic Advisor
Francis Thorne was a classical music composer, a fabulous jazz pianist, and a friend. He had a large body of musical works to his credit. Concerned that US orchestras were not performing the music of American composers, he and Dennis Russell Davies co-founded an orchestra that would perform only the music of American composers. The American Composers Orchestra was then born. What a nice man Francis was, a gentleman at all times. It was always nice to see him at a concert or to sit and chat with him at the ACO office. I will forever remember him.
Jesse Rosen, ACO Board Member and President/CEO of the League of American Orchestras
Beneath Francis’s gentle kindness was a crystalline vision and unrelenting devotion to building an orchestral platform for the American composer. Hundreds of composers owe their careers to his vision, audiences have delighted in the discovery of the new, and an ensemble of virtuosic and passionate musicians gave life to his dream. Francis leaves behind a musical culture immeasurably enriched by his journey.
Please join us in sending our best wishes to the Thorne family. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Francis Thorne Fund at ACO. To learn more about the Fund, contact Jade Jiang, Development Associate, 212.977.8495 x205, firstname.lastname@example.org.