Drawing upon the works of multiple contemporary artists, COMPELLING PORTRAITS reflects the contribution of contemporary Black composers to a rich musical legacy. These compositions take listeners on a journey from the contemplative to the triumphant, showcasing Kenneth Thompkins’s range and sensitivity as a performer.

Today, Kenneth is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about his fascination with human behavior and the unforgettable emotions he experienced following a performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony…

Tell us about your first performance.

My formal introduction to music was in the public schools of Anne Arundel County MD. When I was in elementary school, we sang, played recorder and autoharp in general music class. In the fourth grade we could start band instruments and I played the trumpet a short time before settling on the baritone horn for a few years. The first performance that I remember was a band concert at Pasadena Elementary School playing baritone horn on a few beginning band pieces.

If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

I think that human behavior is fascinating. I have so many questions about why people act and react in certain ways along with what influences behavior. I would explore more of the why of human behavior.

Take us on a walk through your musical library. What record gets the most plays? Are there any “deep cuts” that you particularly enjoy?

My music library is very diverse with orchestral repertoire, classical piano, classical vocalist, and many jazz albums. Through the years I have listened to Dietrich Fischer-Diskau singing the Schubert Song Cycles repeatedly. The beauty of his voice, musical sensitivity, and intensity is unbelievable. Another favorite recording is John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman due to its overwhelming musicality.

What were your first musical experiences?

My first musical experiences were hearing music in church with my parents and also hearing music on the radio. I really loved hearing the choir, soloist, and pianist in church when I was very young.

What’s the greatest performance you’ve ever seen, and what made it special?

While I was a student at Northwestern University, I saw many spectacular performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony conducted by Georg Solti is definitely one of the greatest orchestral performances I have experienced. The intensity of the music along with the spectacular brass of the CSO made this an unforgettable performance.

What musical mentor had the greatest impact on your artistic journey? Is there any wisdom they’ve imparted onto you that still resonates today?

The greatest musical mentor that I have had was Frank Crisafulli who was my trombone professor from Northwestern University. Mr. Crisafulli taught me to sing through the horn and to have flexibility in thinking when approaching musical difficulties. He was also a great example of someone who loved playing the trombone and thoroughly enjoyed making music. I often think of Mr. Crisafulli encouraging me to appreciate the progress that I was making while working towards my goals.

  • Kenneth Thompkins

    Kenneth Thompkins was appointed Principal Trombone of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by Neeme Jarvi. Prior to this appointment, he held positions in the Buffalo Philharmonic, The Florida Orchestra, and the New World Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.