This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: During rehearsal Wednesday morning, many in the St. Louis Symphony orchestra played the first measures of Tchaikovsky through tears. The tears had begun earlier during a long moment of silence for a young orchestra member, Andrew Thompson, who died suddenly the day before.
“We just lost a member of our family,” said Symphony violist Susan Gordon.
Gordon also plays viola for the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis. She had heard the news the night before during a dress rehearsal. Ironically, the Chamber’s first piece was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a dirge made famous in the movie Platoon. They dedicated the movement to the young man everyone called Drew.
“We are just trying to learn how to move forward without Drew,” Gordon said. “He was a great player; he always looked so happy to be there (in the bassoon section).”
Mr. Thompson was a contrabassoonist and bassoonist. He had realized his dream of joining his hometown orchestra just over a year ago.
“To be a member of this orchestra is such a pleasure; everyone has been so welcoming and supportive,” he said in his Symphony web profile.
Mr. Thompson, who lived in “The Grove,” a popular neighborhood for young musicians, collapsed while visiting friends Tuesday (Oct. 15). They were about to practice a new swing dance, one of Mr. Thompson’s favorite pastimes. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Saint Louis University Hospital. He was 27.
His mother, Jackie Stilwell of Webster Groves, said that the cause of death has not been verified, but the medical examiner believes Mr. Thompson suffered from an inherited heart condition that left 95 percent of a heart artery blocked.
Services are currently being planned.
Sound of enchantment
The contra, sometimes called a double bassoon or bass bassoon, is a larger version of the bassoon that requires different fingering skills. It’s also quieter.
“You put all that work in it, making it sound good, and then you can’t hear yourself," Thompson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year. “(But) there’s something about contributing to the greater sound, not being a soloist, that is very satisfying.”
Symphony Music Director David Robertson heard Mr. Thompson’s contribution loud and clear.
“(Some) say that the contrabassoon is an appendage to the orchestra,” Robertson said, “but Drew demonstrated beyond anyone’s expectation how glorious he could make the instrument sound.
“I’ve never heard anyone in any orchestra play it better,” Robertson added. “He brought a kind of beauty, solidity and focus to the sound that had us all enchanted.”
Mr. Thompson spent much of his life preparing to thrill.
The fourth of five children, he was from a decidedly musical family. His father plays guitar, his mother is a band director, and his sister and three brothers all play instruments, one professionally.
“When it was time for me to pick an instrument my older brothers sat me down in front of a stereo and played recordings,” Mr. Thompson told the Post-Dispatch. “I loved the sound of the bassoon and started lessons in the summer before sixth grade.”
His first teacher was Donita Bauer. She taught him at the Community Music School of Webster University, where he received an artistic merit scholarship. Years later, he would borrow a contrabassoon from Bauer to brush up on the instrument for his Symphony audition.
As a middle-schooler, Mr. Thompson played in orchestras at the old St. Louis Conservatory and Schools for the Arts. In high school, he was accepted into the Symphony’s Youth Orchestra, where he played for four years, the last three as principal bassoon. He also performed for four years in the Missouri All-State Orchestra.
He received a performance degree from DePaul University in Chicago. While earning his undergraduate degree, he played with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and its MusiCorps Woodwind Quintet, and substituted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also performed as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He earned a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 2011, he won the Boston Woodwind Society Competition.
The gold standard
Andrew James Thompson, who was born Jan. 30, 1986, was the son of Jackie Stilwell, a band director at Webster Groves High School, and Ronald Thompson, who retired from a shoe company and now lives in Affton. He graduated from Webster in 2004. He’d began playing the contrabassoon as a freshman there.
He honed his skills at summer music programs, including the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colo., and the Tanglewood Music Festival near Boston.
He was completing his master’s degree in 2012, when he successfully auditioned for the St. Louis Symphony. He replaced longtime contrabassoonist Brad Buckley, who retired.
Mr. Thompson was just the seventh youth orchestra alumnus to join the orchestra. The first was Felicia Foland, a fellow bassoonist. She welcomed the newcomer, who she said “was mature beyond his years.”
“Drew’s playing was the new gold standard,” Foland said. “He exemplified how the bassoon (should be) played – full and complete. Some talk about young people having promise; he was already there.
“He gave us a lifetime of musical memories,” Foland added. “We were so fortunate to be in his company.”
Mr. Thompson said the other bassoonists, Foland and the other two Andrews, principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo and Andrew Gott, made it easy.
“As a member of a section that blends so well and is always in tune, I can easily match what they’re playing, and that allows me to perform at my best,” Mr. Thompson said on the web.
His musical tastes were varied. He enjoyed the traditional symphonies, but relished the opportunity to play modern works that Robertson introduced, such as composer John Adams’s City Noir. He needed the big band sound for swing-dancing and he was not averse to jazz. His Symphony "family" said their versatile colleague would long be missed.
“It’s hard to (overstate) the sense of shock and loss,” said Robertson from New York, where he is rehearsing a new opera for the Met. “Even the short time he was in the orchestra he gave us a complete sense of what a musician should be; that will be his abiding legacy.”
In addition to his mother and father, Mr. Thompson is survived by his musical siblings, Keith (Rory) Thompson, of Golden, Colo., Christopher Thompson, of Melbourne, Fla., Nicholas (Isa) Thompson, of Miami, and Elizabeth Thompson, of Pittsburgh.
Visitation will be from 3-8 p.m., Mon., Oct. 21, at Gerber Chapel, 23 West Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Services will be at 10 a.m., Tues., Oct. 22 at Saint Margaret of Scotland Church, 3854 Flad Ave. in St. Louis. The location of the reception immediately following services will be announced at the funeral.
Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.