American conductor Thomas Cunningham is director of orchestras at Iowa State University, and artistic director of Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 2014, this orchestra for the 21st century prioritizes the music of composers of color and female composers to further enliven the classical canon. Previously, Cunningham served on the conducting staff of Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra in New York, NY (2015-18), Helix! New Music Ensemble in New Brunswick, NJ (2015-18), and the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County in Bucks County, PA (2011-18).
A conductor of distinctly broad repertory, recent engagements have included the concertos of Bach, Dvorak and Berg, orchestrating Addi & Jacq's award-winning songs, and commissioning numerous young composers. Passionate about the American repertory, Cunningham believes deeply in the underperformed compositions of African American composers, especially William Grant Still and George Walker. His symphonic suite of William Grant Still’s grand opera Troubled Island is published by William Grant Still Music.
Cunningham has worked on over two dozen opera productions, most recently leading Rutgers Opera Institute in Così Fan Tutte, Iowa State Opera in Orphée aux enfers, and Opera Slavica in Iolanta. He has assisted and prepared choruses for productions ranging from Jenůfa and Eugene Onegin, to Alcina, L'elisir d'amore, and Der fliegende Holländer.
As a composer and arranger, Cunningham’s output includes Puccini's Madama Butterfly for 8 players, and chamber orchestrations of works by Dvorak and Smetana. He has orchestrated arrangements of songs by the duo Addi & Jacq, as well as Harry T. Burleigh and S. Coleridge Taylor. Also passionate about restoration and reconstruction, he led the U.S. premiere of Sibelius' complete original version of Pelléas och Mélisande in 2015. 2016 included the premiere of his arrangement of Ethel Smyth's Three Moods of the Sea, 2017: Harry T. Burleigh songs, 2018: string orchestrations of songs by Alma Mahler and Clara Schumann.
Cunningham's previous engagements include Stereo Hideout, Bard SummerScape, Berkshire Choral Festival, Opera Forza, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn and Westminster Opera Theater. He was a finalist in the 2016 International 4x4 Prizes for composers and conductors, held at the University of Oklahoma. During the summers of 2016 and 2017 he studied with Marin Alsop and Cristian Măcelaru, respectively, at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
Cunningham counts Cristian Măcelaru, Tito Muñoz, Kynan Johns, and Dennis Keene amongst his teachers and mentors. He holds degrees in performance and education from Westminster Choir College and Rutgers University.