Rupert Thompson, cello, made his solo debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the age of 18. He has studied with Mihaly Virizlay and Timothy Eddy, holding degrees from the Peabody Institute (BM) in Baltimore Md; and SUNY Stony Brook of New York (MM and DMA). Rupert has received a career grant from the Concert Artist Guild, as well as the C.D. Jackson Memorial Award of Merit from the Tanglewood Music Center. Live radio broadcasts of his solo engagements include WFMT of Chicago and WQXR in New York City. He began his association with Apple Hill as a resident artist in 2000 and is now cellist of the Apple Hill String Quartet where he tours around the world through Apple Hill’s Playing for Peace program. In addition to his active concert schedule, Rupert is also a photographer, a screen writer, and served as film composer for the award-winning movie Sensation of Sight.
Rupert's life story, which he generously shared with us during the interview below, is a testament to the power of mentoring and the necessity of arts education in public schools. His belief in and advocacy of these ideas is compelling and urgent, grounded in his own history and lived every day through his work at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. As both a teacher and performer — at the festival with students, on a Playing for Peace tour — his mission, and that of Apple Hill, is to "accept people for exactly who they are, where they are." You can come and meet Rupert and the other members of the Apple Hill String Quartet, at our concert on Sunday, April 24, at 7:00pm, at St. Paul's Church in Brookline.
How did you get started with the cello?
How did I get started with the cello? A very interesting question. I am probably what one might call the poster child for the arts in public schools. I am someone who started out knowing absolutely nothing about classical music. Some friends of mine, when I was in the fourth grade, told me that the music teacher was giving out instruments. They all played the cello, all my friends in the neighborhood at that time, believe it or not, all of my friends who are predominantly African American were all playing the cello, which is still in this current day, still a bit of an impressive thing to know that actually one small town in Annapolis, MD, at Parole Elementary School, there was a handful of young African American cellists who weren’t quite aware of what was going on and what they were doing, but the program — we had a great teacher there, Virginia Benack, who just loved to inspire young players, and we played all of these cute little Christmas songs and stuff like that. Somehow I ended up being the only one who stuck with the cello. I played football in high school, I did a few other things, and then my senior year, it all clicked. I was chosen to be a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony and the journey officially started. So public school and the arts: that’s me.
And then how did you get started with chamber music?
Chamber music didn’t really happen for me until I got to college. I did a little bit in the Peabody Preparatory Program in high school and then in the undergraduate at Peabody, but it wasn’t the main focus. Then I went off to graduate school at SUNY Stonybrook, which was a more chamber music-focused school at the time, and things started to click there. So by the time I finished up my doctoral degree at SUNY Stonybrook, having worked with Timothy Eddy of the Orion String Quartet, I was then very much in chamber music. Looking back on it, a ton of us who graduated from that class with Tim Eddy, all of us are string quartet cellists for the most part.
You choose a program for a reason, so it’s interesting that having come from the solo and orchestral background at Peabody, you chose a teacher for your graduate work that put you in a chamber direction.
In terms of graduate school, you’re trying to find a situation where, first of all, you’re continuing on with a great teacher . So that was the pursuit, and I was very fortunate. The focus was chamber music. It was a smaller school that had the capability to do everything but there was more going on than just solo and orchestral playing.
I remember from interviewing the quartet last year that you in particular really spoke to a lot of what Apple Hill does as a holistic program: not just performing, but outreach and touring with Playing for Peace, with your education work through the camp. What about the Apple Hill job drew you and kept you there? You could have gone for a lot of string quartet jobs that would have been more straightforward or narrowly defined, but this is a very broad program and I’m wondering what the draw was for you.
You know, it was a very interesting thing: I made a decision after graduate school. I was taking auditions for orchestras, doing the usual thing that most people do: you’re practicing and trying to get ready to go out into the world. I was very fortunate to get into the Leonard Rose Cello Competition and compete with cellists from around the world and represent our country. Then there was the Apple Hill thing: I was touring and getting performing experience with Apple Hill, I also was getting great teaching experience at the music festival — which is very hard to do when you’re coming out graduate school, it’s hard to get a position where you can be teaching on a professional level — so coming from that perspective, Apple Hill was there, providing some important moments on a larger level. After a while, you start to realize: hey, this is it! You’re actually doing what everybody wants to do. You could freelance and that would be rewarding, you could be an orchestral player… but I happen to be doing something that a lot of people love a lot and really want to do.
For instance, we just did a great masterclass yesterday with ProjectSTEP down at Symphony Hall. There’s a lot of rewards , I mean, we’re in a room in Symphony Hall, and we’re working with these young players who are fantastic, and sound great, and they’re on their way to careers in classical music, and they’re like 10, 14, 15. That’s the life. That’s technically what it is at Apple Hill. Helping folks and learning from it. Teaching the tools of the trade so one can figure out this stuff and get the wheels spinning a little bit more in their brains about how much they actually love to play music — about how much music can give something back which fulfills and feeds the human spirit, perhaps even teaches us how to be better human beings.
Did you have any particular mentors in your career trajectory, who helped you find that spark, or helped you find your way to where you are in your career?
Yeah, I have a series of individuals that were really special. One was a really famous African American bass baritone, his name is William Ray. He was a professor at the Peabody Conservatory and had a huge career in Europe and in Germany in particular as an opera singer. He came up in the days when it was difficult to get work because of skin color. When I was growing up, he came to my high school and heard me play: he grabbed me, and took me to Peabody Prep.
There I met Eileen Cline, who was the first African American dean of a major conservatory in the United States; another Oberlin graduate— these two massive figures in classical music took me under their wings — and as William Ray said to me: “Oh, Rupert was just someone who didn’t quite understand where he was going.” They knew! And they got me in. And from there, I met Mihaly Virizlay, who was the principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony, a great, Hungarian, virtuoso cellist, and he would say I was his “Hungarian son” and he took me in and he mentored me. And from there, I worked with Timothy Eddy, who just has a wealth of knowledge, another great cellist, who opened my mind up to critical thinking as a cellist.
Then I went to Tanglewood and I got to work with Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet, who recently is retiring from that quartet and Eugene Lehner, violist of the Kolisch Quartet. Talk about a major figure: the Bartók String quartets were written for him, the Berg Quartets were written for him, he was also at Tanglewood. He was extremely encouraging of my gift.
You’ve got to understand how important it is to let the kids know — and at that point, I wasn’t really a kid anymore, I was in my mid-twenties — but to let the young musicians, the young artists, the young kids, know when they’re doing something right, that’s golden. Especially if you come from a situation where your parents aren’t classical musicians, like I did. Again, I’m a product of the public school system. Mentors are important!
There is so much to talk about in that answer that I’m not even sure where to go next! There is so much in what you just said that resonates with everything happening in the conversation around the arts in Boston, our mentoring program at Winsor, the scholarship program and our collaboration with ProjectSTEP...
ProjectSTEP: that’s some serious stuff going on there, and the Boston Strings Program, my kids are a part of that. There’s a wealth of great organizations here: New England Conservatory Prep, the Boston Conservatory, I mean, the list just goes on and on and on… the stuff that Ben Zander does, there’s so much going on for the kids, and they’re learning and they’re doing great. Like I said, yesterday, our ProjectSTEP moment, that was just… top notch stuff. Their friends and family were there to say: we support you and we’re going to get you to the next level in style. Symphony Hall is style. That kind of support: you can’t go wrong with it, you just can’t. They can pursue excellence all day. What does it mean to open the door for someone? What does it mean to open a door for someone and say “Please, after you!” That’s what I’m talking about. People did that for me constantly. And a lot of times, I didn’t know where I was going when they opened that door, but they heard or saw or felt the spark in me and opened a door.
That’s exactly what our mission statement is about in a way. At Apple Hill, our mission statement is to accept people for exactly who they are, where they are. That’s what we believe in, that’s how we teach. That means, first of all, when you’re approaching a young player (after a performance), you’re encouraging what was positive about it before you even start to work. You’re automatically in it with the intent to encourage. “How did this young player do that?” The bow hold may not be exactly what you would have done, but they tapped into the music somehow. Or some young player who is really struggling: even that scenario is encouraging. You see them working through it. There are so many positive things that we can offer to a person when we greet them for the first time. That’s where we are at Apple Hill. So in a way, you started this whole thing off with: “How did you start?” Ironically, I ended up in a place that really is known for cherishing and nurturing and doing its best to accept and welcome folks from various different regions, areas of conflict, people whose countries may be at war with each other, and somehow, we’re able to go to these countries, offer scholarships to come back to Apple Hill, and play in chamber music groups with each other and become friends without ever having to talk about what their countries are going through. What does that mean? It means accepting people for where they are, who they are. And chamber music does that to us anyway. I’ve got to sit down and figure out how to match what it is that I want to do with three other people in a string quartet, and sometimes what I want to do is not the best thing for the whole. But when you learn to be flexible, you’re realizing that you’re still putting forth a great moment, perhaps an even more powerful scenario, because it involves a larger good, a larger whole, working together. A team working towards a bigger process.
You brought it full circle, and I cannot think of a better way to end. Thank you so much.