Interview with Samuel Thompson: Weathering the Storm

October 15, 2014, 3:22 PM · It's no surprise that Samuel Thompson is fascinated by the way literary ideas mix with musical ones in Vivaldi's "Winter" from the Four Seasons.

Samuel is both a violinist and a writer, not to mention that he's weathered some serious storms. Samuel is the violinist who took out his violin and soothed a weary crowd with Bach during Hurricane Katrina, after he, along with some 20,000 others storm refugees, were trapped in the Louisiana Superdome and later at the New Orleans Arena during the storm. The terror of those nights 2005 took their toll, as did the strange fame that follows being written up in the widely read LA Times account of the storm.

"A lot of it I can't remember," Samuel said to me last week, speaking over the phone from Baltimore.. "Someone described it like a Hieronymus Bosch painting -- and that's the only thing I can say, it was surreal."

In the years since, Samuel has derived strength and inspiration from the constancy of words and the beauty of music. Though he's played the violin since he was a young child and has a Master of Music degree from Rice, Samuel's writing came post-Katrina, encouraged by a violin mentor, Jorja Fleezanis.

"First it was a personal thing, but then it turned into writing about people doing fantastic things, paying attention to some really great things that are happening in the world and in music," Samuel said. "For me, it's been an opportunity to interact."

Samuel Thompson

A member of Violinist.com since 2003, Samuel has been blogging on Violinist.com since 2005 and has written for numerous online and print publications, including Strings Magazine and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's "Other Notes".

On the musical side of things, Katrina gave him some opportunities. "I'm grateful for so much of it. In one year, I had the opportunity to do things and play concerts -- and consequently meet some amazing people who are doing wonderful things in the world in music, theater and social justice," Samuel said. "But that was also a very strange time, going even up to 2008. I remember thinking, this is great, but at the end of the day, I'm still a violinist, I'm still a musician. I want to make sure that I'm playing well. When it comes to recovery and reintegration, it's been a long road, but I'm finally starting to feel like I'm in a place where I can really do that."

And that's where Vivaldi comes in. On Oct. 22, Samuel will play "Winter" with the Colour of Music Virtuosi as part of the second annual Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, S.C., with other seasons played by other violinists: Brendon Elliott (Spring), Edward Wellington Hardy (Summer) and Charlene Bishop (Autumn). It's one of many concerts and events scheduled during the 10-day festival, running Oct. 17-26, which celebrates black classical musicians in solo recitals, chamber concerts, orchestra concerts, and at the end, a Verdi Requiem. The festival also features many works by black classical composers, past and present.

For Samuel, the upcoming performance is a chance to look anew at a set of works familiar to us all, The Seasons, and to revel in their imagery.

"These aren't concerti, they're more like musical paintings," Samuel said. Though he learned the music years ago, he is discovering it anew and enjoying re-reading the poems that Vivaldi wrote as his own inspiration. "He did such a wonderful job of translating these words into music. The score says, 'Shivering, frozen, amid the frosty snow and biting stinging winds.' When the solo violin comes in at the beginning with the 32nd notes, that's supposed to be a blast of stinging wind. The double stops at the end of the first movement are teeth chattering in the bitter chill. The third movement: walking on thin ice, slowly and cautiously for fear of tripping and falling. If we move quickly -- then it's scales going down, with words in the score, 'falling to the earth.'"

The Colour of Music Festival was founded by Lee Pringle and music director Marlon Daniel, who dreamed for 10 years of creating a festival to highlight the achievements and contributions by black musicians to Western Classical Music.

"Lee did a really great thing, and I'm proud to be a part of this," Samuel said. Events such as this, and the Sphinx Competition, help unite black classical musicians and shine a spotlight on black composers such as Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Edmund Thornton Jenkins, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Dominique Le Gendre, Nkeiru Okoye, Joyce Solomon Moorman, Trevor Weston and many others.

The festival gives its participants the chance to increase their awareness of historical figures of African descent and to gain a much larger perspective on the scope and significance of black participation in this field. A common reaction: "We didn't know we existed!"

"It is helpful; it's inspiring, There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things, all across the country," Samuel said. "One's eyes are opened to so many things in American history, and world history and musical history and the contributions that so many people have made that we don't know very much about."

That spirit of discovery and exploration -- for all aspects of music -- is what has kept Samuel on the musical path.

"I love the instrument, I love the craft. There is nothing better than being in the lab, being in the practice room, making sure that the strokes are even and that the bow is not skating. What a great feeling," Samuel said. "But what I love about being a musician, even more than I love playing, is that there's always a chance to look at everything with new eyes -- to hear different things, and to go deeper."

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