There are lots of memories and stories in a 43-year career with the Orchestra. Principal Violist John Thompson shared some of them with us when he reflected about his career with the CPO. John, originally from England, retires this year. We wish him all the best! He’s looking forward to continuing his love of bird watching.
Q: How old were you when you started playing music?
A: I played piano and recorder when I was about eight or nine. I didn’t take up a string instrument until I was 12. I spent about eight months on the violin and then switched to the viola.
Q: What made you switch from violin to viola?
A: Well, they formed a Youth Orchestra and they said, “You’re a big lad and we need viola players, so why don’t you play viola?” So I did.
Q: What Orchestra did you perform with?
A: I played with The Grimbsy and Cleethorpes District Youth Orchestra. They started when I was 11, and I first played for a year in a recorder ensemble. And after two years, I was able to join the youth orchestra.
Q: What made you start playing music?
A: We inherited a piano from a great aunt, and then we had enthusiastic teachers at my junior school, and they were very much into it. In fact, one of the teachers was the director of the recorder ensemble, and the headmaster of the school was one of the conductors of the youth orchestra. So they were very much into the musical scene. So I was fortunate that way.
Q: What made you decide to pursue being a professional musician?
A: It just sort of evolved. That’s where I had my fun and my social life. It just seemed inevitable.
Q: Where did you study music?
A: I studied at the Royal Academy of London in 1967.
Q: What made you decide to come to the CPO?
A: I spent four years at the Academy, and I was planning to do a fifth year. But I was playing principal viola in the first orchestra, and the conductor was Maurice Handford, who at that time was the director of the Calgary Philharmonic. One day he said,”how would you like to be principal viola at the Calgary Philharmonic?” And that was that. There was five of us that he invited to play at the Calgary Philharmonic. And he said, “we would like you to stay for a couple of years.” And that was it.
Q: How have you seen the Orchestra change over the years?
A: When I first came, it was almost a bit part-time job. It was a 30-week season. It was an orchestra that would rehearse at night because people had other jobs in the day time. Now it’s a much better orchestra. The quality is much more on national and even international in a competitive basis.
Q: Have you seen the profile of the Orchestra change?
Yes, certainly when Mario Bernardi, who was a very well respected Canadian conductor, came to Calgary. He had a lot of energy, drive, and connections that really helped the orchestra. He took us touring, and did a lot of CBC work because he enjoyed that connection. I think he really put us on the map. And the job of a musician evolved. It grew in length of season, it grew in pay scale, it became a much more attractive job so it attracted better musicians and now the quality of people auditioning are very good musicians. It makes a big difference.
Q: What’s a highlight of your career?
A:Performing at the Musikverein was a real highlight [when the CPO toured in 2000 with Hans Graf]. It’s a fantastic hall. My viola had never sounded better. And it was nice to think you were on a stage where Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms performed as well. So it was very special. And there’s such a rich tradition there.
Q: What advice would you give to up and coming musicians?
A: Put in the work. Prepare as well as you can, because when you’re young, that’s when you have time to hone your skills.