When violinist Samuel Thompson headed to New Orleans in the summer of 2005, he didn’t expect to be thrust into the national limelight. He especially didn’t expect to be at the epicenter of one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. He was there to collect his thoughts, take care of some personal business, and to practice for the Rodolfo Lipizer Competition.
“I had been playing in the Louisiana Philharmonic in 2002-2003, but moved back to Houston where I had gone to school at Rice University after that contract was over. For most of 2005 I was going back and forth between Houston and New Orleans. That summer I decided to stay in New Orleans and prepare for the competition.”
When the news came that Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward him and the rest of New Orleans, he did the same thing as thousands of others. He packed his belongings and set out on foot for what had been designated as “the shelter of last resort,” the Louisiana Superdome. He arrived after walking nearly two miles with his violin and two suit cases.
“There were over twenty thousand people in line to check in. There were many National guardsmen as well as TV crews. Despite what happened in the days to follow, it was not chaotic at that moment – it was well-organized. It was nothing like what was later seen in the news reports world-wide.”
The tragedy that unfolded in the days to come has been documented in great detail. What was also widely reported by both public radio outlets and classical music publications was a rather touching moment when Sam, taking a brief respite from assisting with caregiving and dealing with the general overwhelm of the circumstances, was asked to play his violin.
“This is always an interesting question,” he says. “My playing at both the Superdome and, later, at the New Orleans Basketball arena became the stuff of urban legend and many imaginative scenarios very quickly.”
He did play twice. First, while seated in Section 113 of the superdome, at the request of a friend. Later, after his group was moved to the New Orleans Basketball arena and the magnitude of what he and the rest of the city was dealing with began to sink in, he was approached again.
“While my initial thought was that there were far more important things to do, I did ask both a nurse and a National Guardsman if I could play something.”
As he played music by both J.S. Bach and Mozart, he noticed a change in the crowd of people around him. “I remember it being very quiet, and afterwards the National Guardsmen came to me with tears in his eyes, thanking me for what I had done.” However, for Sam, the moment was passing, “What always seems to be left out is that after that small period of time, I put my violin away and got back to helping people prepare themselves for the helicopter transport that was coming."
Five minutes after he finished playing he says he had urine on his hands. He was helping move a woman from a wheelchair to a cot where she would sleep that night. She was incontinent.
Sam says that what’s often forgotten when his story is told, is that he, just like everyone else, felt the magnitude of the situation. The romantic image that was painted by the media of his playing the violin amidst the chaos did not match the reality of what he experienced in the Superdome.
“I’m a human being,” says Thompson, “I was profoundly affected by this as well, even though I wasn’t on a roof top.”
In the decade since that long, hot, horrible summer, Sam says he’s learned a lot. After a flurry of media attention, some of which he described as “cutthroat” and “inhumane," he says he prefers living a quiet life today. He’s more protective of himself and his time.
“My desire to find a quiet place in which I could focus on my violin playing and other aspects of my life really overshadowed my desire to ‘chase fame,” says Thompson. “I take better care of myself... I teach. I perform."
Sam has performed in Austin twice, once in 2011 at Ebenezer Baptist Church as part of the Pro Arts Collective’s Black Arts Movement and, in 2012, with Michelle Schumann for Austin Chamber Music Center.
He currently plays with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia and Delaware Symphony. This summer has been a busy one. He participated at the Colour of Music Festival in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. as well as the Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, N.Y. Sam also writes, which he says is something that he started doing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You can find his blog at http://www.violinist.com/blog/nobilemente/
Courtesy of Samuel Thompson.