Meet the Musician: Violinist Meg Thomas

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Muncie, Indiana – a college town where I had the opportunity to participate in and be exposed to many musical activities from a very early age.  

When did you begin playing the violin?

I was the youngest of four siblings, all of whom were engaged in musical activities.  At age 4, I begged to be allowed to take lessons.  My mother believed very strongly that piano was the first step, so that is where I began.  However, Dr. Ferdinand Schaefer, founder of the Indianapolis Symphony, was a frequent guest in our home and a teacher of my eldest sister.  He encouraged my parents to make use of my “talents” on the violin.  I began at age 7 and the attached picture was taken when I was 8 and he was 83.  I adored him, although he quite often admonished me for not having enough “gumption” when I played – something that sticks very vividly in my mind.  

              Meg with F. Schaefer (first violin teacher, Meg 8 yrs old; Dr. Schaefer 83 yrs old)

Where did you go to college?

I graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music with a double major – applied music (violin) and music education.  At the time, there were very few women in symphony orchestras and I was heading for Washington, DC, with my husband (Owen) and baby daughter.  He was to attend the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies and I was to provide for the family; thus, my need to be able to teach school. At that time, there was no string program in Fairfax County and I was abruptly told that I could not be considered for a position in Alexandria because of my family status – not a good prospect for longevity.  Thus, I taught 8th grade general music.  It was an interesting time as my first year was the first year for school integration in Fairfax County.  I had been trained to teach strings and teaching general music was not particularly satisfying.     

          Photo Take at Oberlin - Owen and Meg upon graduation from college.

What made you want to become a professional musician?

I think from a very young age, I thought I would be in an orchestra, having begun at the tender age of 9 to experience the excitement of doing so.  I attended the same school, kindergarten through 12th grade, where music was a vital part of the curriculum on an everyday basis.  I began playing in the university orchestra in 7th grade and in the civic symphony in the 9th grade.  

I also attended Indiana University music clinics, participated in All-State Orchestras, played for high school musicals and became quite involved in chamber music at an early age.  My great love was to make music with others; hence my preference for an orchestral instrument.  

What year did you join the orchestra?

I first performed with the musicians who would become the KCOHO in July, 1977.  At that time, we were “free-lancers,” but we were the basis for the orchestra that was formed in the fall of 1978, becoming the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.  The goal was to provide job security for a set group of musicians and become a cohesive orchestra with professional standards.  With the completion of the 2017-18 season, I will have been in the orchestra for 41 years.

How has the orchestra changed in the years since you joined? 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 are many:

1) The orchestra was originally formed as two orchestras – a musical show orchestra being one and the opera-ballet orchestra being the other.  Over the years, as the show orchestra diminished through attrition, the members of the opera-ballet orchestra were hired to do show orchestra work as extra work beyond the opera-ballet guarantee.

2) The original orchestra had 61 members, but it was really a 2-tier orchestra wherein not all members were hired for each production.  That changed in 1985 when a meaningful guarantee of work weeks (hours) was achieved in the CBA.  

3) It took years to achieve a mature collective bargaining agreement that took into account such things as requirements for receiving music in advance of an engagement, provisions for music support staff, provisions for parking arrangements, designation of music directors, rotation of work, audition procedures, etc. 

What is your favorite aspect of playing in the KCOHO?

Having been in the KCOHO for so many years, I suppose it is difficult to narrow this question down!  However, more than anything else, I love the collegial atmosphere that has always been and continues to be present in this orchestra.  I believe that the members genuinely like each other and enjoy making music together.  The product is important and they, for the most part, take pride in what they do and are proud of each other.  Musical integrity is very important to all.

Do you have a most memorable moment from your tenure here at the Kennedy Center?

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 the lead role.  I also treasure the memory of doing “Othello” with Placido Domingo singing the lead role.  I feel really fortunate to have been in the orchestra during the “Fricke-Domingo” years.  I also feel fortunate to have been in the orchestra during the significant ballet years (1980’s) when Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova, Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland were dancing.  The house was filled with patrons and enthusiasm for every performance.  My favorite ballets are those of Prokofiev – “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella.”  Occasionally, we get to perform very good symphonic repertoire for some of the ballet companies, New York City Ballet in particular.  

What are you most looking forward to this season?

The season is more than half over, but the highlights have been: “An American in Paris” for musical theater; “Whipped Cream” for ballet; and, “Don Carlo” for opera.  

You’re quite the world traveler!   What have been some of your favorite places to visit?

For over 30 years, Owen and I have been engaged in very interesting travel.  He was born and brought up in India, so one of his goals was to take me there.  I resisted for many years, but finally, in 2006, we traveled for a month in India – first, on a group tour, and then, independently in order to visit his favorite childhood haunts.  It was an eye-opening experience and one, which in the end, I loved.  I was intrigued by the people, the colors, the smells, and the pace of life.  I came away with a greater understanding of who Owen was and how his thinking about life had evolved.  

Photo of Meg biking in the forest -- Netherlands

We have been fortunate to experience many types of travel.  We have bicycled in the Loire Valley of France, through several islands in Denmark, during tulip time in The Netherlands and from Key Largo to Key West.  We took delivery of a car in Paris and drove 5000 miles on the backroads of England and Scotland.  We drove the Amalfi Coast and hiked the Cinque Terre in Italy as well as attending the Palio in Siena.  We spent a month in Greece visiting islands in addition to Athens and ALL of the open monasteries of the Meteora.  We rode on our son’s naval ship from Gaeta, Italy to Sicily and spent a week exploring Sicily.  We have taken small ship cruises along the Dalmatian Coast, the coast of Norway, and, from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  We have been to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos and through the Magellan Strait to Cape Horn.  We have kayaked in the Panama Canal.  We have rail-passed through Switzerland. We have taken a train trip from Vancouver to Banff. We have attended the Christmas Eve “Lessons and Carols Service” at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England.  We have chartered a schooner and taken the entire family sailing off of the coast of Maine.  Most recently, we have rented a canal boat and piloted our way from Middlewich, England to Llangollen, Wales and back, working the locks and bridges ourselves.  And, next year, we plan to train trek in Japan, when we visit our son and family in his next assignment.  The list goes on, but enough said!  We like variety and we like to experience the culture and see countries on a more personal level.  

Greece: Meg on the steps of one               of the monasteries.

What do you enjoy doing while you aren’t traveling the world or playing the violin?

Staying in good physical shape is a priority.  If one is to play the violin well and travel the world, it is a necessity.  Walking several miles every day, doing yoga, practicing water aerobics, bicycling, free weights – all are a part of my regimen. 

                        Meg Kayaking in Maine

I love to work 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, but I restrict that activity to leisure time in Maine.  Nine years ago, we purchased a second home in Camden, Maine.  We love being there.  It is such an active, small community.  In the summertime, the Bay Chamber Music Festival, begun by Thomas and Andrew Wolf around 1959, is a wonderful endeavor, where I have become the “page turner” for piano participants.  It has been an enlightening experience to witness the various temperaments!   If I am in Camden in the wintertime, I like to work at the soup kitchen in my church.  I am also a fan of the outdoor activities available in that area – kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming and bicycling.  Gardening has been a time-consuming pastime, although we have downsized in that area.  Reading is important with historical fiction being my favorite type of book, along with biographies.  Most important, has been the time spent with my family.  Owen and I have three grown children (and their spouses), all of whom currently live locally.  We have 5 grandsons and 3 granddaughters, ranging in age from 8 - 26.  We have been very fortunate to be involved in their lives and they have all enriched our lives immensely.  In no small measure, they have helped us to remain “young” in spirit! 

Family Picture on Schooner Isaac Evans off the                                   coast of Maine.