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Evelyn and Ralph Thompson Memorial Scholarship
Evelyn and Ralph Thompson: a tribute
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Evelyn and Ralph Thompson: a tribute

Evelyn Thompson was a dedicated organist, choir director, accompanist and teacher of piano and singing.

Born in Perth in 1924, she spent her childhood and teenage years in Bunbury. From the age of eight, when she began to take piano lessons, she displayed exceptional musical talent. By the age of 14 she was playing the organ in the Bunbury Methodist Church, and at 16 had gained her LTCL and AMusA , The examiner from Trinity College, London, invited Evelyn to continue her music career as a concert pianist, but the war intervened, and her mother was reluctant to let her travel.

Evelyn was appointed to her first teaching position at the age of 17, as piano teacher at Kobeelya Girls' School, Katanning.

In 1947 she married Ralph Thompson, and returned to Perth where she and Ralph raised their daughters Margaret and Anne.

From 1961 to 1965, Evelyn was organist and choir mistress at Trinity Congregational Church in St George's Terrace. In 1965, she was appointed Organist and Director of Music at Wesley Church, a position she held for 25 years.

In 1979 the Australian Broadcasting Commission approached her to form an 80-voice choir to perform with the WA Symphony Orchestra. Their first performance was Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, which was recorded with David Measham conducting. For a decade the Festival Chorus, as it became known, covered virtually all the major choral works in concerts in Perth. It performed Mahler's Third Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and also the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Ascot. When in 1988 the WASO Chorus superseded the Festival Chorus, Evelyn continued to act as its Choir Mistress for several years. All earnings of the Festival Chorus - over $14,000 - were donated to charity.

One of the highlights of this period was Song of Survival, a concert sponsored by the WA Division of the Australian Red Cross Society to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the release of Australian Army nurses from a prison camp in Sumatra. It was performed at the Perth Concert Hall in August 1990 to a packed audience – Vivian Bullwinkel among them. The choir was known as the Song of Survival Choral Orchestra, with Evelyn as musical director. One of the choir members was Anne Watson, Secretary/Treasurer of Art Song Perth. "It was a very moving and emotional occasion", recalled Anne.

Evelyn taught piano and organ. She was also a vocal coach, and was much sought after as an examiner, and adjudicator. In addition to teaching at Methodist Ladies College, she took private students, among them mezzo-soprano Jolanta Nagajek.

When Jolanta arrived in Perth from Poland in 1974, she had no money, and very little English. She was directed to Evelyn Thompson, who gave her not only professional support, but also friendship and encouragement. "Evelyn was the most generous person", said Jolanta. "Kind, understanding, patient and very giving. She worked tirelessly for anyone who needed a lesson, or help of any kind. She was very generous with her time."

Jolanta went on to make a successful career as both a performer and teacher, singing major roles with Opera Australia for over twenty years. She won many awards, including $10,000 Myer Award at the National Eisteddfod held in Perth in 1979 in conjunction with the state's 150th anniversary; the Pan Pacific Finals of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in Hawaii in two successive years – 1980 and 1981; and the most outstanding competitor in the ABC Instrumental and Vocal Competition (later known as the ABC Young Performers' Competition), in 1981.

When in 1980 Jolanta undertook a study tour of Europe and the UK as part of her Myer scholarship, Evelyn and Ralph accompanied her. A WA Arts Council grant enabled Evelyn to work closely with Jolanta, studying vocal teaching methods under Hans Hotter in Munich, Vera Rosa Nordel, Geoffrey Parsons and Erich Vietheer in London, Wojciech Smietana at the Academy of Music in Cracow, and Professor A. Bremer, in Basel, Switzerland.

Evelyn was a regular accompanist for the WA Music Teachers Association, the Royal Schools Music Club, the Lieder Society of WA (now Art Song Perth), Musica Amica, and many other groups and organisations.

In 1983, she was awarded the City of Perth Civic Medallion for Community Services, and made Citizen of the Year for Arts, Entertainment and Culture. In the 1984 Queen's Birthday Honours she received the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the community through music.

Ralph Thompson supported her unstintingly and unselfishly throughout her career, acting as secretary and public relations manager, and generally assisting in the running of a busy musical household. "He was a remarkable man," recalls Jolanta. "Evelyn was a fantastic teacher, and both she and Ralph created an atmosphere which encouraged and supported all the young students."

After Ralph's untimely death in 1992, the Lieder Society approached Evelyn, Margaret and Anne with a proposal to dedicate a scholarship in his name. The first Ralph Thompson Memorial Scholarship was awarded in 1994 to pianist Richard John.

On Evelyn's death in 2010, with the permission of her daughters, the Scholarship was renamed the Evelyn and Ralph Thompson Memorial Scholarship.

Evelyn and Ralph Thompson worked tirelessly for the promotion and training of young musicians. Art Song Perth is honoured to continue this work through the annual scholarship dedicated to their memory.

Jane Leahy Kane

Evelyn and Ralph Thompson, from portraits painted by Herb Pearson