Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Soothing Song

Thousands flocked to the New Orleans Superdome to escape Hurricane Katrina, including a violinist whose soothing music garnered international attention.
Matt Elliott

Violinist Samuel Thompson's career has put him on stages nationwide with choral groups, orchestras, chamber music groups and dance companies.

But nothing compares to his impromptu concert inside the New Orleans Superdome while he and other Hurricane Katrina evacuees awaited rescue.

Thompson, a 1995 music graduate of OSU, was living in New Orleans at the time and planning to compete in the Rodolfo Lipizer International Violin Competition when the hurricane struck on Aug. 29, 2005.

Instead of playing the Bach sonata he planned to perform, Thompson, 37, had to evacuate. He took his seat in Section 113 of the 72,000-capacity arena amid the thousands of other survivors.

Sara-Lise Rochon, a Canadian woman from the youth hostel where he had been staying, asked him to play something.

"So I played," says the violinist, now based in Baltimore. "A few of the students made jokes, 'Sam you're going to be famous, you know.'

"Three days later, were moved to the New Orleans [Basketball} arena," where nursing home patients and a triage unit were also stationed.

"Somewhere during all of this, I played the violin," he says. "At some point, while were were helping the group of nursing home evacuees, Sara asked again if I would play something. My first thought was, 'No, there are more important things for me to do right now than take out the violin.'

"But I found a place to put my case down, took the violin out and started playing Bach," he says.

A photographer with the Baton Rouge Advocate snapped an image of him that traveled around the globe through the news wires.

Boston Globe writer James Horrigan wrote, "Thompson with his violin in the New Orleans arena, surrounded by evacuees and soldiers as he plays Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G Minor for an amputee in a wheelchair, is one of the lasting images from round-the-clock media coverage of Katrina and Rita."

After a week, Thompson evacuated with a large group via buses to Dallas, where he recovered with a friend for a few days before heading to San Antonio. Through a friend who was the associate concertmaster, Thompson got a job with the San Antonio Symphony, where he played for a season.

More invitations began rolling in to play concerts and festivals. One such appearance took him in June 2006 to the New Haven International Festival of Arts and ideas, where he performed in a multimedia staged recital as photos of New Orleans were projected on a screen behind him.

He has appeared in the Boston Globe, Newsweek, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio. NPR listed him as one of 10 artists whose work bears their commitment to New Orleans. In September 2007, he was featured in [the] International Musician.

"I've had a chance to really start developing the type of career that I would like to have, and I've met some incredibly amazing people," says Thompson, who performed in the Tulsa Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca last fall.

Thompson has been linked with New Orleans since the storm, largely for his work organizing and performing in benefit concerts for arts organizations in the city. In February 2007, he performed in a benefit concert with the Cortlandt Chamber Orchestra in new York for the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra, and he plans to continue fundraising for the city.

Thompson fears that the media attention will cause his peers to think he recently started performing, although he made his national debut in 1998 with the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado.

"Sometimes it's very easy for a person, after many years of working, to appear in the spotlight and be perceived as the 'flavor of the week'," he says. "If one looks at most industries, it's clear that many years of hard work can pass before the 'pivotal moment' where timing plays a factor."

Thompson's repertoire of modern and classical chamber music has grown to include works by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Eugene Ysaye and Bach. And he has performed with groups including the Orchard Park Symphony Orchestra, members of Orchestra X and the Marian Anderson String Quartet.

As an OSU student, Thompson co-hosted the KOSU-FM shows Afternoon Classics, Jazz Afterhours and In The Groove. In 1995, OSU invited him to campus to solo with OSU's symphony orchestra.

Thompson says he's happy to be settled in Baltimore where he can further develop his career while performing in competitions across the country and the globe.

Despite his busy schedule, Thompson remains in contact with the hurricane victims who were seated in his section of the Superdome.

"I just recently head from some the Australians," he says, as well as the National Guardsmen who took care of his group and a man named Paul who let him borrow his credit card to make phone calls. "We talk about how our lives have changed and how this affected us."