Opinions & Features March 31, 2021 at 03:30 pm

This Jamaican became the first woman to compose a symphony in 40 years in Europe

Ama Nunoo March 31, 2021 at 03:30 pm

March 31, 2021 at 03:30 pm | Opinions & Features

Prof. Shirley Thompson broke a 40-year hiatus to compose a commemorative symphony. Photo: Shirley Thompson

Professor Shirley Thompson in 2002 became the first woman to compose a symphony in 40 years in Europe. Her ensemble, “New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony” was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and written in celebration of the thousand-year history of London. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was accompanied by solo singers, a rapper, two choirs, and dhol drummers making a total of about 200 performers

An English composer of Jamaican descent, Thompson first fell in love with composition when she began playing the violin in youth symphony orchestras in London while signing with local choirs as well.

Her “New Nation Rising” composition, which made its debut at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, had its concept taken as the framework for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Thompson is a seasoned composer, educator, artistic director, and conductor whose works have been played and heard the world over. Her pieces have been used for many films, television, theatre, dance, and opera productions.

She pursued her bachelor’s in Musicology at the University of Liverpool and specialized in Composition at Goldsmiths’ College with Professor Stanley Glasser. She is a Reader in Composition and Performance at the University of Westminster and has served on many art councils.

“Visions,” from the Greenwich International Festival, was her first major composition, and then a few more followed. Thompson added writing music for films and television to her resume and that was a success too.

Her composition for the popular series, “South of the Border”, made it to the top 20 theme song list on BBC at the time. She received a prize at the Mannheim Film Festival for her composition for the film “Dreaming Rivers.”

Thompson’s repertoire transcends film and television and seeps into dance. Aside from being commissioned for several royal engagements, she got busy making classic pieces for contemporary choreographers including the Royal Ballet School’s workshops.

“Shift” is her most popular dance score and it featured a solo cello and string orchestra for the award-winning ballet performance “PUSH” which was headlined by seasoned ballet dancers Sylvie Guillem and Russel Maliphnat, not only in England but in over 20 countries that the ballet number toured.

In 1995, she founded and directed The Shirley Thompson Ensemble at the South Bank Center in London. Her diverse group consisted of instrumental soloists, singers, visual artists, and dancers. This group was the foundation of her unique compositions.

Music is her life, and she would not stop until many more are groomed into the industry. With that, she spearheaded many arts education programs including that of the Newham Symphony Schools Spectacular for children from 7 to 17 years of age in 2002. The whole Newham borough ended up adopting the program as part of the national education plan in 2010 under the banner, “Every Child a Musician.”

Thompson’s works span decades and her versatility is admired by many. Be it in theatre, opera, dance, film, or television, Thompson delivers excellent pieces. Heroines of Opera, her work to unearth submerged narratives that feature iconic women in history, has been lauded by many.

She was the first woman to serve as executive of the Association of Professional Composers and is an active member of the Classical Music Executive for the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers, and Authors.

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