Thelma Hunter knew what it was like to play on the big stage. At age 5, the pianist performed at Carnegie Hall as one of the "talented youth of New York." In 1939, she played the Grieg Piano Concerto for Norway Day at the World's Fair.
From her arrival in the Twin Cities in 1947 until her death Aug. 18, Hunter was a major figure in the Twin Cities music scene, playing solo and chamber performances with many local ensembles. When she wasn't tickling the ivories, Hunter served on boards of several local organizations and worked tirelessly to create opportunities for the next generation of pianists and composers by commissioning their works.
"She was a top-notch musician and one of the great musical spirits of the Twin Cities area," said Philip Brunelle, artistic director of VocalEssence. "She was always encouraging younger composers to stretch themselves."
Hunter, 90, of Mendota Heights, died in her sleep.
She was born in New York City; her father was a Norwegian immigrant choir director and composer and her mother a pianist and organist. Hunter was a child prodigy. She earned several scholarships while studying at Cornell University in New York. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1945, then earned a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music. She was among the first women to be awarded an "Artist's Diploma," an honor given to Eastman students who demonstrate exceptionally outstanding performance ability.
Hunter joined the University of Minnesota School of Music faculty in 1947. She served on advisory councils, and in 1985 was one of the people who lobbied the Legislature for funds to build Ferguson Hall, the school's music hall.
"She was a progressive thinker, eager for the School of Music to embrace innovative change in the education of musicians," said David Myers, the school's director from 2008 to 2014. "She knew the challenges for musicians, of attempting to support themselves as performers, and she wanted the U's students to graduate with a broader skill set under their belts."
Hunter was a board member with organizations that included the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Dale Warland Singers, the American Composers Forum and Thursday Musical. At the Schubert Club, she funded prizes for student scholarship competitions. She also was one of the early members of the Minnesota Commissioning Club, which was formed in 1990 to spark the creation of new music. Earlier this month, Hunter attended the commissioning of "Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother" by Minnesota composer Jeffrey Brooks at a music festival in Massachusetts.
"You won't find a person who didn't have the hugest respect for her both as a musician and as a thoughtful person who made things happen in the community," said Barry Kempton, artistic and executive director of the Schubert Club.
Hunter was as sweet as the music she played, but she never held her true opinions back, those who knew her said.
"She always had that insightful remark. She was not Pollyanna," said Linda Hoeschler, founder of the Minnesota Commissioning Club. "If she didn't like the pianist, she'd leave. She was thoughtful, kind and never dishonest. She was the golden thread that shimmered through our lives."
Hunter is survived by five sons — David, Robert, Stephen, James and John — along with nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 18 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Av. S., Minneapolis.