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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins: Expanding on traditions of civic commitment.

Beyond heightened sensitivity to prejudice and recognizing the plight of the other, members of the African American and American Jewish communities mutually advocated for the liberal promise of individual rights, during the civil rights movement.

Even in the face of increasing political polarization, problems of discrimination, unequal access to opportunity and education still top both Black and Jewish agendas, as do commitments to civic community, tolerance, and diversity. (Bibliographic resource)

Deepening this alliance through her artistry, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins speaks out against antisemitism and racism, and brings hope where hope is sorely needed.

When Kelly Hall-Tompkins, 2017 New York Times “New Yorker of the Year” and violin soloist of Bartlett Sher’s Grammy-nominated production of Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, finds herself reflecting on her pivotal role in the hit musical’s run in 2015-2016, she says: “We all thought we were looking back in time, to a fictional story taking place in 1905, but with the rise of discrimination and hate, we sadly began to realize we were not looking backwards, but forward in time.”

“We could not imagine then how far it would go, witnessing Nazi swastikas appearing in our midst this past year, from subway trains to university classrooms; American Jewish citizens wearing a Yarmulke or a star of David, or African Americans just living their lives while Black, being ostracized.

From the brutal killings on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and Emanuel Church in Charleston to the cruel murder of George Floyd, the pandemic has globally exacerbated existing tensions, pulling us apart instead of bringing us to stand together in a time of crisis. It is disheartening,” says the acclaimed soloist and passionate chamber musician, who has been honored with the Concert Artists Guild Career Grant, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and a Naumburg International Violin Competition Honorarium Prize. “And where is our outrage in response? Too often short-lived and easily forgotten,” she comments.

Acclaimed by The New York Times, as “the versatile violinist who makes the music come alive,” praised for her “tonal mastery” (BBC Music Magazine) and “groundbreaking” recording projects (Strings Magazine), and featured in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins is a trailblazing powerhouse, not afraid of asking the right questions and of putting her talent where her convictions lead her, to help make the world a better place.

Many of her projects that seemingly just developed by coincidence have more likely been guided by a deeply felt caring for others, regardless of age, heritage, or status. When during the search for a new violin, she developed a warm friendship with the then 93-year-old Alfred Mur, a Holocaust survivor and neighbor in Washington Heights, she became not only intimately familiar with the former violinist’s passion for music, but with the anguish and survival of the Jews during the Holocaust. Captivated by his remarkable memoir, supported by her friend’s blessing before his passing in 2011 at almost 100 years, and only short of finding a publishing house for the task, Hall-Tompkins self-published his book, titled The Last Quartet: A Violinist’s Memoir of the Holocaust. She subsequently lent her supportive voice as featured speaker at the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in honor of Alfred and in memory of Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in 2011.

Jewish themes have continued to appear throughout Ms. Hall-Tompkins’ life. Inspired by her time on Broadway as ‘the Fiddler,’ she commissioned and developed with the Broadway creative team her latest album, The Fiddler Expanding Tradition, the first ever Fiddler solo disc, released in 2018. One of her first post-pandemic performances was a spoken and musical contribution for Yom Ha’Shoah at Temple Avodath Shalom, and she is currently working on a new violin arrangement of the song “My Mother’s Menorah” for the composer-lyricist duo Eileen and Gail Sherman for a performance at Lincoln Center this fall.

Hall-Tompkins has been a long-time promoter of bringing people together through the transformative power of music. Reaching beyond the classical stage, her pioneering organization Music Kitchen- Food for the Soul brings that music to homeless shelters around New York City and Los Angeles, sending a message of hope where hope is sorely needed. Music Kitchen has presented top musicians, including celebrities like Emanuel Ax, Glenn Dicterow, and Arturo O’Farrill to over 100 concerts in shelters; the organization has recently expanded internationally, to Paris, France.

Evolving from its initial benevolent purpose into an ambitious concert presenter, for which Hall-Tompkins is the producer, fundraiser, schedule coordinator, and publicity manager, Music Kitchen celebrates its 15th anniversary with Forgotten Voices. Commissioned by Music Kitchen with support from Carnegie Hall, Forgotten Voices is a song cycle that artistically amplifies its audiences’ voices, setting the comments of shelter clients to music by 15 award-winning composers.

What kept Hall-Tompkins going in her mission to advance Music Kitchen was the unexpected enthusiasm she encountered at a homeless shelter, when performing a run through of a concert for houseless audience members for the first time. Experiencing how music touched people’s hearts in such powerful ways made her come back for more - no questions asked. Classical music can reach people in a way that other genres cannot “because of its vast harmonic palette, which corresponds directly to every emotion that we feel as human beings,” according to Ms. Hall-Tompkins. “Classical music will take you through so many different iterations of all of the complexities that we experience.”

“When we begin a concert,” she says, “there are often audience members who sit stoically in a corner and refuse to engage in any way. But after the first five minutes of music, a change comes over them and that change is palpable. Many of them have not heard classical music before. But they are smiling, relaxed, and involved. It’s a powerful experience that leaves a profound effect on everyone present,” she says, “and for the musicians, the joy of making music is augmented by the joy of sharing it with a completely non-served audience,” she explains.

Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, said about his experience with Music Kitchen that “the intense interaction of giving and receiving has been a very special experience for me and has moved me deeply.” One audience member expressed her gratitude by saying, “I really felt at peace within my mind and soul listening to Music Kitchen. I’ve been through so many trials and tribulations. Thank you for coming over.” It is such related concert feedback that led to Forgotten Voices.

“I had the intention to roll out a new piece every month for 15 months,” explains Hall-Tompkins. “We did get to introduce 14 of the 15 works in person before the pandemic and the 15th one we premiered virtually. Even though our intended schedule was interrupted, and the Carnegie premiere postponed, these past 15 months of the pandemic have shown why elevating the forgotten voices among us is so vital,” she says. “Sheltering at home; what does that even mean when you don’t have a home” Imagine.” she says.

Just 6 months before the pandemic’s outbreak, Hall-Tompkins had been appointed to the faculty of her alma mater, the Manhattan School of Music, which had awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 2016.

Mentoring the young generation is of great importance to the artist. She has recognized the increasing importance of the visual element in addition to audio content, with a double release video “Pure Imagination,” that features Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 6 and her own jazz arrangement from the original film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As the content reached over a million YouTube views, Strings magazine lauded her work as a “groundbreaking, potent package,” and “Pure Imagination” was featured by Chamber Music America in a public presentation on creating music videos.

During the pandemic, Hall-Tompkins produced the educational workshop “Classical Music Explorations for the outreach program of GetClassical In School, bringing great performing artists into the classroom. Guiding students innovatively through the different styles of classical music, the workshop will be part of GetClassical In School’s growing digital workshop library, in conjunction with its live school visits which will recommence upon schools fully opening.

Whatever current project Ms. Hall-Tompkins puts her attention to, she accomplishes with her unique, energetic style, staying true to her principles. She bestowed these words on Manhattan School of Music’s graduating class, during its 2016 Commencement, which speak to her motivation as an artist and leader:

“The biggest risk for a musician is to take no risk at all. So, when you leave here today, take a risk. Live your life with passion. Work to make a difference while you're working to make it. Find the rhythm and the resonance of your time. Turn to a fresh, new page, and draw what you see."



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