Member Spotlight: Marcus Thompson

Welcome to our Member Spotlight series, where we highlight some of the amazing work being done by ArtsBoston Member Organizations all over the Greater Boston area. Once a month, we choose a staff member from one of our Member Orgs and chat with them about why they do what they do and what being a part of the Boston arts and culture community means to them. If you would like to nominate someone you know (or perhaps yourself) to be considered for a Member Spotlight, please contact us.

This month, I had the pleasure of chatting with Marcus Thompson, violist and Artistic Director at Boston Chamber Music Society.

How did you first begin making music? Do you have a memory of the moment or events that put you on the path to becoming a classical musician?

I started violin at age six with a teacher in my NYC neighborhood in the South Bronx, the Morrisania section. He was a grey-haired man, possibly in his 70’s, from Jamaica. He played and taught both violin and piano to a large number of neighborhood kids in his studio apartment. I recall the large living room being lined with chairs where everyone sat waiting their turn for his attention. My older sister and I started at age eight and six, respectively; she played piano. I had no idea about becoming a classical musician, or what that meant at that age, and not for a long time until other options started to fade in importance. It took many more years of schools, teachers, concert experiences and training before I knew I just had to do it.

What was different in the world of classical music when you first started your career? What remains the same? What change do you still hope to see?

I’m sure a certain heedlessness of youth blinded me to the obstacles. More than one of my friends has said, “if we knew then what we know now…” The professional classical world is hugely difficult, demanding, and competitive for everyone who aspires to it. Just like professional sports. Add to that certain biases we all have about who can or should succeed based on background, income, education, natural talent, things are remarkably the same today as when I played my first professional concert in Boston fifty years ago. There are now many more examples of people from non-Eurocentric backgrounds and marginalized communities thanks to El Sistema and the explosion of interest within various Asian communities.  At the same time, classical music is slowly losing its share of the audience as new forms of entertainment and engagement compete for people’s attention. That may mean fewer outlets for employment in classical music and less incentive for a young person seeking a realistic career path. Boston is atypical in its abundance of the best of almost everything. But many new conservatory graduates from Boston must seek full-time employment beyond our city given an uncertain economic reality that goes along with that abundance of talent.

The legacy I hope to leave by example—that music is a gift that must be shared. And that studying with me means studying alongside me as I study.

Thanks to organizations like Project STEP in Boston, the Sphinx Organization on the national level, and the growth of El Sistema programs around the country, young people of color can actually get to see and meet scores of fellow travelers at all levels of instruction, something I did not have in my early years. For younger players, there is a kind of safety in numbers of people doing the same thing you aspire to and not feeling like you’re the first, the only, or the crazy one. But let’s be clear, playing music is a calling. You respond to it unlike any other job or career, and humbly take your place in the profession regardless of the sacrifice.

Thompson plays with Boston Chamber Music Society. Photo: Wen Huang

How does your personal taste in music influence the programming decisions you make as the Artistic Director of Boston Chamber Music Society, which is such a tight-knit, ensemble-driven group?

I like to believe my personal taste is broad. People who have heard me outside of BCMS know that I play a greater variety of music than I am able to program. Our repertoire consists of the great works of the masters of mixed chamber music and reflects what our players love to play and our audience loves to hear.

You have been a prominent arts educator at the collegiate level for many years now. Has teaching college students made you a better musician? What is the legacy you want to leave with these young performers?

Teachers of every kind must also be great learners. I’ve taught at MIT for well over four decades, and at NEC for over three. I learn so much from my students. They think they are only learning from me! It has taken these many years just to start to fully incorporate the greater percentage of what I’ve learned. I really don’t believe I would be playing in public was I not teaching. It is as though I have no personal access to anything I know until I try to help someone else. I’ve gained so much from having to answer great questions and explain anything more clearly. The legacy I hope to leave by example–that music is a gift that must be shared. And that studying with me means studying alongside me as I study.

Fewer than 2% of musicians in professional orchestras identify as African-American, and recent research from the ArtsBoston Audience Initiative reveals that only 11% of arts patrons identify as people of color. How do we encourage audiences of color and young African-American musicians to engage in classical music?

I’m told that African Americans account for 12.5% of the total population of the USA and 25% of the population of Greater Boston! At 11% or 2%, it is clear there is still room for improvement. I don’t expect that we will ever account for the same percentage among professional orchestra members, but I suspect we would make up a greater percentage of all professional musicians of all genres are counted. As for audiences, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that in the 1970’s, when I played the Walter Piston Viola Concerto as a soloist in Carnegie Hall with the Symphony of the New World, an orchestra made up of a clear majority of talented people of color, the audience in the 3000 seat auditorium was well above 50% people of color! Families, friends, and children came to a full symphonic concert to see and hear their friends and neighbors.

Young people of color can actually get to see and meet scores of fellow travelers at all levels of instruction, something I did not have in my early years. For younger players, there is a kind of safety in numbers of people doing the same thing you aspire to and not feeling like you’re the first, the only, or the crazy one.

They also came to hear that music. The notion that people of color and African-Americans, in particular, do not engage with classical music in large numbers, that it is not part of our culture, is not my experience. In my South Bronx neighborhood, lots of kids played instruments, sang together–even when music was unavailable in public school! As a teenager, my pianist sister accompanied private rehearsals of solos from the great masses and oratorios with church musicians who lived in our neighborhood in their homes and apartments. My father rehearsed his gospel vocal quartet on a weekly basis in our living room, where I played recordings of Brahms Symphonies, Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, and many other works borrowed from an upstairs neighbor on our phonograph. I bet I play chamber music today because I loved the close harmonic interaction.


Thompson introduces music at a pre-concert talk. Photo: Wen Huang

Of course, when I came to MIT and had the opportunity to meet Professor Eileen Southern at Harvard, my own education about the rich tradition of blacks active in classical music began. Her book on the Music of Black Americans has photos and stories of string players going back to the 1800’s and a really amazing photo of the Negro String Quartet active in Harlem during the 1920’s. What really blew me away was seeing photos of two musicians I knew–Marion Cumbo, cellist, and Hall Johnson–the same one who arranged spirituals for famous singers, who were both in the quartet. Hall Johnson was the violist! I had met him at my Harlem church after I played a Bach suite! He never said who he was, other than his name!

In NYC, I rarely attended a concert downtown in any of the great institutions with any of the people I knew who enjoy classical music, probably because I socialized with them elsewhere, in concerts at church, or in the neighborhood. Julliard, where I studied starting in high school, was located near Columbia University, overlooking Harlem. When I went downtown, I went alone, or once with my mother to the old MET, or the New York Philharmonic to hear my teacher or someone I knew personally, but not as a habit of social interaction. I’ve been to recitals by Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Kathleen Battle, among the greatest singers of my time, and seen a higher percentage of people of color among the patrons. Instrumentalists not so much. It is clear that stars, whether of baseball, basketball, or music have a place in our world.

You have played viola and the viola d’amore with orchestras of all sizes all over the world. What is your dream concert?

I have already had and continue to have the most exalted experiences of my life in concerts that I play and attend. And not just concerts! I was once reprimanded at an early age for stopping in a reading rehearsal before the end of a phrase. It was in a chorale at the end of Bach’s St. John Passion. I recall playing one especially unusually placed note, one note in a particularly beautiful phrase, and nearly fainted! Even as I recall that moment, I realize why I play music. There may be scores of such experiences throughout a day, a week, or a lifetime of which we dare not speak. Many of them play over and over in my mind every day. I know other young people who have those experiences, too, of the sublime, the transcendent, the everlasting. They mean more than fame, attention, and fortune. They are the real reason people go to concerts or play them–to add more such moments to one’s life.

BCMS musicians take a bow after a performance of Walton’s Piano Quartet at Sanders Theatre. Photo: Chung Yiu Cheng.

Audrey Seraphin is the Membership and Capacity Building Manager at ArtsBoston. She is a member of the Front Porch Arts Collective and a proud graduate of the Theatre Studies program at Emerson College.       twitter-4-512 @audreyseraphin

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