Meet the Musician: Violinist Meg Thomas

How long have you been in the KCOHO?

I first performed with the musicians who would become the KCOHO in July, 1977.  The particular group who were playing for opera, ballet, and musical shows at the Kennedy Center were “free-lancers,” who had worked there, for the most part, since the opening of the Opera House. There had been much friction among musicians as many felt worthy of doing the work but hiring was done at the whim of a contractor.  Additionally, many people who were accustomed to working and earning a living there, suddenly saw their work possibilities vanish upon the death of one of the contractors. With that as the impetus, the musicians decided it was time to form a tenured orchestra that would offer both job security and more appropriate standards for being a part of that orchestra.  The original members of the orchestra were thus chosen on the basis of the amount of time they had performed opera in a specified period of time prior to the fall of 1978.  I was in a group of nine who had substituted in the year prior to the forming of the orchestra, but who had not been part of the main body of musicians. Those nine people were taken into the group provisionally with the stipulation that they would serve a year of probation with final approval or not given by the first music director, John Lanchbery. That is the long answer.  The short answer is that with the 2016-17 season, I am beginning my 40th year in the orchestra.  

Where did you grow up and where did you go to college?

I grew up in Muncie, Indiana – a college town where I had the opportunity to participate in many musical activities from a very early age.   I graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music with a double major – applied music (violin) and music education for the sake of security!

What made you want to become a professional musician?

I think that from a very young age, I always thought I would be in an orchestra, having begun at the tender age of 9 to experience the excitement of doing so. From that point on, I participated on many levels. I attended the same school, kindergarten through 12th grade, where music was a vital part of the curriculum on an everyday basis. I also played in a university orchestra and a civic symphony from 9th grade through 12th grade, prior to attending conservatory. My great love was to make music with others, thus my preference for an orchestral instrument.

How did you end up living and working in the metropolitan DC area?

My husband, baby daughter and I moved to metropolitan DC so that Owen could attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. At that time, I taught general music in Fairfax County in order to support our family. There was no string program in the public schools of Fairfax County and when I interviewed for a job in Alexandria, I was told that because I was a married woman with a small child, I would not be considered for the position because I was not a good prospect for longevity. The schools system in Fairfax County was growing rapidly and the year that I began teaching, middle schools were opening for the first time and integration was begun that year. It was an interesting situation but rather difficult. I had been trained to teach strings and did not feel particularly satisfied with teaching 8th grade general music, seeing each group of children for only 9 weeks of the school year. 

What has changed since you have been a member of the orchestra? What aspects have stayed the same? 

I think that the one thread of consistency has to do with the integrity of the musicians and their support for one another. For the first several years of the orchestra’s existence, our position was tenuous and it was imperative that we have a collective spirit about our worth and our mission. It was important to have a mature Collective Bargaining Agreement – something that took several years and several work stoppages to achieve.  There was never any doubt but what the musicians would work together as a group and take pride in what we were doing. 

The changes have been many.

1)  The orchestra was originally formed as two orchestras – a musical show orchestra being one and the opera-ballet orchestra being the other. There were many who played in both orchestras, but those who were in the show orchestra only, could be hired if needed for the opera-ballet orchestra. Rarely, were musicians who were in the opera-ballet orchestra hired for the show orchestra. Eventually, the show orchestra was phased out by attrition and musicians in the opera-ballet orchestra were then hired to do the musical shows.

2)  The original orchestra had 61 members, but 3rd woodwind players and a 3rd percussion player were only hired for the week of ballet work if the hours exceeded 28 in number. And, they were only hired for the opera if called for in the score.  There was no rotation of work or relief.  Also, it was possible to hire less than the full complement. The front stands were hired first and the orchestra thus had a core group. One of the goals of the orchestra from the beginning was to ensure that every person was valuable and each person had an hourly guarantee of work, thus insuring that all were important and essential – no second-class citizens.

3)  Auditions – Originally, auditions were only open to local musicians.   It was at Maestro Heinz Fricke’s insistence in the mid-90’s that they became international in scope as he very much wanted to hire the best available person with no limiting factors. Also, originally, violinists always joined the orchestra through the 2nd violin section, with move-up auditions scheduled for moving into any 1st violin vacancy. Move-up auditions still take place but are open to the winner of the audition and 2nd violinists.

4)   Mature Contract – It takes time to achieve a mature collective bargaining agreement and although many things were achieved in the initial agreement, there were many additions and improvements over the years, not the least of which was a requirement that we receive music in advance of the first rehearsal. Originally, we received our music at the first rehearsal for any give production with no bowings done ahead of time and no opportunity to prepare.

5)   Four music directors – John Lanchbery, music director for American Ballet Theater was our first music director. At the time, ABT was the resident ballet company of the KC and performed for 4 weeks in December and 2 weeks in the spring. Consequently, he was a logical choice, since we saw a great deal of him.  He remained for only one year.  The second music director was John Mauceri, who, although he remained for about 15 years, was mostly in absentia. Heinz Fricke became the music director in 1993 and remained with us for 15 years. It was during his tenure that the orchestra stabilized and advanced in so many ways. The current music director, as we all know, is Philippe Auguin. 

What has been your most memorable performance with the KCOHO?

I believe the opera which I loved playing the most was the production of “Der Rosenkavalier” with Maestro Heinz Fricke conducting and Mirella Freni singing. I also treasure the memory of doing “Othello” with Placido Domingo singing. My favorite ballets are those of Prokofiev – “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella.”

You recently played a solo recital; tell us about that. Where did you play and what pieces did you perform?

I performed in Camden, Maine as a part of the Friends of Music Series at the First Congregational Church. I played with two other Maine musicians – one is the Minister of Music at the church and the other is a former member of the Greensboro Symphony. When I opted out of playing the “Ring Cycle” because of tendonitis in my thumb, I needed a goal to keep me playing and practicing. Consequently, I turned to chamber music and this opportunity. The program consisted of the Beethoven Violin & Piano Sonata in G Major, Opus 30 in addition to the Smetana Trio in g minor for Violin, Cello and Piano. It was a pleasure to have the time and energy to devote to that endeavor. 

How long did you prepare for this recital?

One answer to this question is:  all my life! In the past few years, I have summered in Camden, Maine where I have had the opportunity to witness a lot of very high quality chamber music. The setting in which this music is performed is so intimate that I have studied and witnessed many wonderful musicians in a very unique way, learning so much. Doing this recital has given me the opportunity to think in depth about each of these two pieces and come to terms with them myself rather than doing just as the conductor directs me to do. This has been both a challenge and a treasure. 
A second answer to this question is: since the beginning of this past summer, individual practice on my own and two weeks in October with the other chamber musicians.

How different was your preparation for the recital, compared to orchestral or chamber work? Do you have any special warm ups or routines in place in your practice?

Since I have done so much individual practice and playing by myself in the past 6 months, I determined that every sound coming out of my instrument would be a beautiful sound. That has required a lot of analysis and thought about my playing. Consequently, I think that I am playing better than I have for a very long time. Technically, the pieces of music are both within my normal abilities, but the mental preparation and the musical interpretation has been very challenging. At my stage and age, it is not easy to put my playing on the line and invite an audience. It is a challenge for two reasons – to see if I can still “do it,” and to achieve a high level in the doing! Special warm-ups and routines? Very much so – scales and arpeggios for 30 minutes; Bach every day; physical exercise 5-6 days a week; metronome practice; lots of slow practice; and probably of greatest importance, thought about why I am doing something, not mindless repetition.  

What words of advice would you give aspiring professional musicians, especially young violinists?  

It is really important to love what you do. It is always necessary to practice.  There is an old saying  - if you don’t practice for one day, you know it; if you don’t practice for two days, your stand-partner knows it; if you don’t practice for three days, the whole world knows it.  With this kind of standard, it is necessary to love the work involved.  

Always stay in shape physically. I found that as I got older, the only way to combat the deterioration of muscles was to workout with free weights. At one point, when I was discouraged about the deterioration, I started doing the free weights – vibrato control returned, bow control returned, and many aspects of left hand technique became easier.   

Do not expect orchestra experiences to be everything. There have to be other things of importance in your life. There is so much repetition in an orchestral situation and so many things over which you have no control.  You must have other interests, both musically and non-musically, to give your life meaning. If you expect orchestral playing to be the end-all, you will be disappointed.   It is important to have a balanced attitude about it.

Always be prepared by the first rehearsal. You will earn the respect of your colleagues and each rehearsal will be more meaningful and beneficial.   
Have a collegial attitude towards your colleagues. Discard the concept of competition that you may have had in music school.  It is important to work together as a group and want every person to do his/her best in order to achieve the common goal of perfection in as much as possible.