Memorable Manitobans: Stewart MacMillan Thomson (1930-2008)
Born at Winnipeg on 14 April 1930, son of W. Davidson and Helena Thomson, he began a music career at the age of 8 years when he began piano studies with Glen Pierce, later with Leonard Heaton and organ tutelage with Walter MacNutt. At age 12, he began accompanying his father in recitals and concerts. He attended Mulvey School and Gordon Bell High School, where he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, accompanied choirs, appeared as solo pianist with The Winnipeg Schools Orchestra, and was chosen valedictorian of his graduating class in 1947. He also competed in solo piano classes and in duet classes with Audrey Belyea at the Manitoba Competitive Music Festival.
Graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1954 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, he joined the provincial Department of Public Works (Government Services) as a draftsman. He concluded his career as Senior Architect/Project Manager, retiring in November 1988. Notable career highlights included the conversion of the Winnipeg Auditorium for use by the Legislative Library and Archives of Manitoba, the construction of the Manitoba Youth Centre, and the conversion and restoration of the A. A. Heaps Building (formerly the Bank of Nova Scotia).
While an architect by profession, music and the church were his greatest joy. In 1951, encouraged by Richard W. Cooke, his future father-in-law, he assumed the position of organist at St. James Anglican Church. In 1954, he became deputy organist of St. George’s Anglican Church, Crescentwood, directed by Donald Leggat, whom he succeeded as organist and choirmaster in January 1956. For the next 50 years, he developed and maintained a tradition of choral excellence with the Men and Boys’ choir, the last of its kind in Western Canada. In training the treble voice, he developed hundreds of singers, many of whom have become accomplished musicians in their own right. He was the first church choir director in Winnipeg to use brass and percussion instruments in worship services, and introduced countless contemporary choral compositions by English composers. He was regularly called upon to assemble and conduct massed choirs for special diocesan services, including the consecration of the Bishops of Rupert’s Land, Brandon and Keewatin in 1969.
Outside the church, Stewart was also extremely active in music, both locally and nationally for over 60 years as a chorus master, vocal coach and especially an accompanist. Married to soprano Phyllis Cooke in 1955, he was her musical collaborator in many recitals throughout Western Canada and on CBC Radio. They commissioned and premiered Bernard Naylor’s Three Feminine Things on 18 October 1976. He was heard on the CBC Distinguished Artists Series as collaborator with singers and instrumentalists. He was an accompanist of the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir, accompanist and then Chorus Master of the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir from 1967 to 1975, and the Manitoba Youth Choir for 17 years. He prepared children’s choruses for performances with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Manitoba Theatre Centre, and for 30 years, the Manitoba Opera Association. Stewart was also a fixture at the Winnipeg Music Festival as an accompanist at all voice levels. A trophy, given by his family in his name, was instituted by the Festival in 2004 to be awarded for the most outstanding performance by boys with unchanged voices, eight and 10 years of age and under.
He died at Winnipeg on 27 October 2008.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 1 November 2008.
“Passion for music lasted a lifetime: Music festival veteran nurtured local talent,” Winnipeg Free Press, 31 October 2008, page A10.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 23 December 2014