On February 15, 2012 the flute world lost one of its unsung heroes with the death of John Thomas. He had three great passions in his life – his family, his students, and music. John attended the Eastman School of Music where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1947 and his Master’s degree in 1949 as a flute student of Joseph Mariano. He received the Performer’s Certificate in 1948, and while a student served as Mariano’s assistant in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Following his graduation he became principal flute of the San Antonio Symphony for three seasons. In 1952 he took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. When Walfrid Kujala left Rochester in 1954 for the Chicago Symphony, Joseph Mariano tapped Thomas to fill that post.
I attended Eastman for six years beginning in 1955 and had the opportunity to know Joseph Mariano’s and John Thomas’ playing both as an audience member and then as a player. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Thomas’s job was to play 2nd flute/piccolo for the Rochester Civic Music Association. The “Civic” was the nucleus orchestra for the various professional orchestras in Rochester including the Rochester Philhar-monic. In the Philharmonic, whenever three or more flutes were needed (which was most of the time), Thomas would play piccolo/3rd flute and an advanced Eastman student would play 2nd. (I played that position from 1958-1961.) In addition, he was the primary flute teacher for the Eastman School Preparatory Department (now known as the Community Music School) and taught flute and flute methods/techniques, and coached chamber music.
He resigned his position in the RPO when Joseph Mariano retired, and continued on as assistant professor of flute until his own retirement in 1995. He was also proficient as a pianist and organist. He regularly accompanied his students and, after his retirement from Eastman, was organist for the United Church of Christ in Brighton, New York.
Soon after I joined the RPO we played Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite. It has an exposed and demanding part for solo piccolo. I was blown away by the beauty of his sound, the effortless and commanding way he played the opening solos and the scales in the Troika – flawlessly over and over again. It is still in my ears.
Thomas was a quiet man with an ever-present gleam in his eye. He was the epitome of the always prepared, always dependable professional. He had a wonderful, wry sense of humor and avoided controversy like the plague although he was completely aware of what was happening around him, musically and otherwise. He didn’t miss a thing, and had amazing presence of mind. For example, once we were playing the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, and when Joseph Mariano who never missed anything got to the passage where the solo flute plays C C C# C, only four C naturals came out. Very quickly John passed his flute to Mariano, and Mariano played the next phrase as if nothing had happened. John then removed the water bubble from Mariano’s flute and no one was the wiser. John Thomas and his outstanding artistry will be missed by all who knew and loved him.