Live at the Center: Joshua Thompson

May 2021

From scientists and philosophers to poets and playwrights, some of the greatest minds in history were inspired by classical music. In that spirit, The Center for the Performing Arts is pleased to stream live from the Palladium one of Indiana’s own, Joshua Thompson, a classically trained pianist and music sociologist!

The Mission Behind the Musician

Thompson’s mission is to program and perform classical masterworks by composers of African descent. He is increasingly recognized on a national scale for his expertise on classical composers of African descent and the inherent cultural connectivity in the broader aesthetic of Black Arts movements. As the 2020 Beckman Emerging Artist Fellow of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, he successfully completed his residency at the Africana Studies Center for Music and Society at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and currently serves as the first Musicologist in Residence for Classical Music Indy.

Live at the Center Joshua Thompson

His first major artistic production, “Village Voices: Notes from the Griot,” made its world premiere in 2018 at Newfields. In 2019, Thompson was named Performer in Residence for Eskenazi Health’s Marianne Tobias Music Program and was a featured artist for the Arts Council of Indianapolis’ annual Art & Soul Celebration. He has worked with artists including Whoopi Goldberg and bassist John Clayton,  and he co-hosts a podcast—“Melanated Moments in Classical Music”—with operatic soprano Angela Brown.

Thompson’s zest for pushing boundaries, his inquisitive nature and his passion for classical music has steered him along his journey that began as a young trumpet player. Thompson obtained a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. His music and advocacy paths often merge as he continues to work with an expanding range of Central Indiana cultural arts organizations and social agencies to facilitate access to educational resources.

“I was never a rule breaker, but I was definitely a boundary or envelope pusher,” Thompson shared, “And in my house, that did not go over so well. What I found with music—classical music, in particular—was when my mouth would get me into trouble, I was able to effectively articulate how I was feeling. I would literally play through a laundry list of emotions, and it helped me to become a much better verbal and nonverbal communicator within and outside of own household. And I’ve never lost sight of that.”

Though his original dream was to become an orchestral trumpet player, Thompson shared that no one is more surprised than he that he became a concert pianist.

“I went to DePauw [University] as an English literature and trumpet performance double major and came out with a sociology degree,” Thompson said. “It makes perfect sense—or it does in my head. My brain has always had a very sociological way of thinking. My parents would say that it’s one thing to be unsatisfied with something and ask ‘why?’ but you have to find out ‘why’ and if you’re still feeling raw about it, develop and devise interventions to correct the things that you see are amiss.”

A Universal Translator

After college, Thompson went to work in the social services field and took a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from music. But the universe had other plans for him, and he was pulled back into the world of performing and programming classical music.

“I started doing my own research on classical composers of African descent, and that breathed new life and reinvigorated my passion,” Thompson shared. “I once thought that nobody cared about classical music until I gave a concert and I was proven so wrong. There is something about witnessing the application, dedication, discipline, skill and passion that is translatable and understandable to everyone, regardless of their age, race and social status. It is a universal translator.”

As a teaching artist, Thompson uses classical music to illustrate the correlations of music, science and history, as well as to demonstrate the connections of [classical] music to social and emotional learning.

“The music that’s been written [throughout our history] are physical blueprints that give soundtracks to where humanity has been in any given place and time,” Thompson expressed. “I’m a musical storyteller in my presentations. And in fact, the show that I’m giving at the Palladium is called ‘The Black Keys—The Evolution of the Black Classical Arts,’ and it starts at the very beginning before there were even people. It starts from absolutely nothing, and the opening piece is called ‘Out of the Silence.’”

When asked what Thompson believes is the future of classical music in the 21st century, he thoughtfully replied, “The genre is not going to evolve if we do not make it a high priority like other genres did. Pop sounds different about every 20 years, where classical music is classical. What I think many traditionalists are really going to have to wrestle with is this working definition of what we consider ‘classical music’ and whether [this definition] is more of a benefit or detriment well into the 21st century. We’re all asking that question, and there is no definitive answer. Whatever positive ideas we come up with we will put into our work so we can hear what sticks and let this whole conversation just happen. It is a journey that we’re all taking to get closer to an answer.”

Join us for The Center’s livestream concert featuring Thompson on Wednesday, June 2, at 7:30 p.m. You can enjoy a front-row perspective with stereo sound and multi-camera HD video for FREE on The Center’s website at thecenterpresents.org. Be sure to register and also check out Thompsons website at joshuaathompson.net and his podcast: “Melanated Moments in Classical Music” at classicalmusicindy.org/podcasts/melanated-moments/.