Curt Thompson rolls up airline miles faster than points on a pinball machine in his life as a concert violinist.
He performs at prestigious venues worldwide. New York. Paris. Rio de Janeiro. Shanghai.
But one trip he made best illustrates the man’s gracious nature and his gratitude to those who helped make his dream come true. The founder and executive director of Fort Worth’s Mimir Chamber Music Festival flew to Australia six years ago to visit his former violin teacher.
Thompson traveled 9,000 miles to say goodbye.
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Nelli Shkolnikova was a famous Russian Jewish classical violinist. After being banned for more than a decade from performing outside the Soviet Union, she defected to West Berlin in 1982. Shkolnikova settled in Melbourne and later joined the faculty at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music.
There the virtuoso met a promising freshman from Conway, Ark.
Shkolnikova held her students to the highest artistic standards. She taught Thompson precisely how to position his hands and arms. Over six years under her systematic and demanding tutelage, praising and barking at him by turns, her prized pupil learned to play with the rich tone characteristic of the Russian string tradition.
“I was a good student for her,” Thompson said. “And she was the perfect teacher for me.”
In 2010, when he went to Melbourne, he found his mentor under hospice care in her home. Cancer had stolen her voice and the ability to use her right arm. But Shkolnikova still could communicate with her expressive eyes.
A single spilled tear welcomed her former student’s arrival.
When Thompson returned home three weeks before her death, he carried with him a memory as enduring as the black notes that march across the pages of a classical 18th-century score.
As the two of them sat and listened to recorded concertos — Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, beloved music she knew by heart — the 81-year-old teacher curled her left hand and fingered the strings of an imaginary violin.
George and Sharon Thompson handed their youngest son what would become his ticket to the world when he was 5 years old. He took to violin lessons immediately.
“Like a duck to water,” he said, smiling.
Head cocked, chin resting against the tiny wooden instrument, Thompson dutifully sawed through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Go Tell Aunt Rhody and other ditties he learned using the Suzuki Method.
The boy showcased his talent and versatility by age 12, when he became the youngest member of the Conway Civic Orchestra. He also participated that year in the first Toad Suck Daze, Conway’s annual spring festival that features, among other events, the World Championship Toad Races.
Thompson didn’t own a fast toad (or a slow one) so he skipped the race and wisely entered the music competition instead. His stringed trio flawlessly performed Froggie Went A-Courtin’ in D major, or some other key of choice.
The audience — and judges — loved it. The winners split the $20 prize three ways.
By his teenage years, Thompson knew he wanted to become a professional musician, but he could not have attained his goal without the encouragement and steadfast support of his parents. While in high school, he spent most Saturdays traveling from Conway to Memphis, Tenn. — 160 miles away — for violin lessons.
Three hours by car, each way.
Week after week, year after year after year.
Thompson and his mom took turns behind the wheel. In his mind’s eye, he still can picture the rural landscape as they drove past acre after acre of soybean and cotton fields, the land dotted with sharecropper shanties.
Thompson suspects most of the income that his mom earned from teaching piano lessons went to pay for his instruction, his sheet music, travel to his summer music camps, his violins.
The violin he owns now is an antique treasure. He plays it before audiences throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia as a concert soloist, recitalist, concertmaster and chamber musician.
Thompson, 45, will play his violin — sometimes at breakneck speed — during the 19th Mimir Chamber Music Festival at the PepsiCo Recital Hall on the Texas Christian University campus. The annual event, which runs through Friday, features a collection of performing artists from the world’s leading orchestras, music schools and concert halls.
Anyone who thinks they’re going to come to a boring classical music concert need not worry.
Curt Thompson of the Mimir festival
“Anyone who thinks they’re going to come to a boring classical music concert need not worry,” Thompson said. “What they’ll hear is sort of like classical music’s answer to jazz.”
Four years ago, Thompson left his longtime professorship at TCU and joined the faculty of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He still keeps a home in Fort Worth, planning to return one day, but for now he enjoys living and working in the vibrant cultural center of a country halfway around the world.
A year after Shkolnikova died, Thompson married violinist Oksana Murashova, who was born in Latvia. Their son, Liam, soon will turn 2.
In Australia, the child can see koala bears and bouncing kangaroos. Parrots and cockatoos appear right outside his window. But his parents say the boy seems most fascinated by the ebb and flow of stringed music that fills their loving home.
“He’s very curious,” Thompson said. “He already wants to play.”
So Oksana shows Liam her violin. She lets him pluck the strings.
The boy’s father is somewhat more protective of his instrument, which is understandable, given the price he paid a Boston dealer for it more than 10 years ago.
“It’s worth more,” Thompson confided, “than my house.”
He found the violin he wanted only after traveling to major cities across the country and trying out this one, that one, then another, about 100 instruments in all.
His violin is a Storioni. And, what a story it could tell.
The story would begin in Italy, in a small workshop.
It was there the skilled hands of master violin maker Lorenzo Storioni selected the wood, brought it to life, and gave it a voice — such a beautiful voice — five years after Mozart died, in 1796.
19th annual Mimir Chamber Music Festival
- Concerts take place 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Friday at PepsiCo Recital Hall on TCU campus and 2 p.m. July 3 at the Kimbell Art Museum.
- For tickets and complete schedule, visit www.mimirfestival.org.