NEW YORK—The art of music in Kelly Hall-Tompkins’s hands is everything it is meant to be—communication between humans, highly creative, and an exploration of our emotional depths. When she plays, you want to truly listen.
“Music is the greatest of all the arts, I think,” said Hall-Tompkins, an acclaimed violin soloist and chamber musician. “The language of harmony is so interesting, so rich, so vast. It’s like alchemy.”
Ever since she was a child, what resonated with her most in all her experiences was music—classical music, specifically. When she went to church, when she watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, when the radio was on—it all led up to the experience, at age 9, of seeing a string quartet perform at her school. Upon seeing that violin player, Hall-Tompkins remembers knowing immediately that that was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Her journey as an artist has been one of finding voice after voice within music, and her creative career has shown she is adept at handling paradoxes. In addition to appearing as a soloist with many major orchestras, she tours with chamber ensembles, and is a YouTube hit and the founder of Music Kitchen, a decadelong program that brings live classical music to the homeless. She is currently the violin soloist for the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Her philosophy is to give all of herself to whatever she does, and yet she manages a wide range of commitments at any given time.
It is the result of always being on the lookout for inspiring “nuggets of possibility” around her, Hall-Tompkins said, and at the same time delving deeply into anything she takes on.
Playing ‘Fiddler’ 8 Times a Week
For a year now, Hall-Tompkins has wholeheartedly embodied the music of “Fiddler” for nearly every single show.
When “Fiddler” Music Coordinator David Lai approached Hall-Tompkins about the revival, she wasn’t so sure about taking it on. After all, classical music was her great passion; she had never appeared on Broadway. Her husband also cautioned that if she took on the taxing role, she should not play it more than six times a week.
But since Hall-Tompkins said yes, she hasn’t been able to get enough of it. The only days she has taken off were ones when she already had another concert booked. Playing the same music every night has been anything but monotonous—it actually has been rejuvenating.
“I love it, I love the creativity; it lets me explore something that stems from within me every time I play it. I know it sounds antithetical—how can playing the same music eight times a week do that?—but it really does,” Hall-Tompkins said. The spontaneity of live theater is akin to chamber music, she explained, when every moment is real and present and every performance is completely new.
Her music becomes another actor, another character in the musical, interacting with the others.
For instance, at the end of the first act, a celebration comes to a harrowing halt when soldiers disrupt a wedding. In the quiet aftermath, the main character, Tevye (played by Danny Burstein), delivers the line: “Clean up!”
Sometimes he is defiant, and on other nights, he is defeated or distressed, Hall-Tompkins said. The violin part has a few bars that echo Teyve: sometimes Hall-Tompkins plays it the way Burstein delivers it, and other times she does the opposite, bringing in contrast.
The music of the entire act builds up to it, so it is not a casual or off-handed decision.
Here, Teyve’s understanding of the world is shaken, she said. “It’s a complex weaving of emotion and tragedy,” she said, “and thinking about how I get there.”
The music of “Fiddler” is free-spirited and sort of rustic, she said, and it brings out a voice from within her she didn’t know she had until she explored it. The more she plays in the shows, the more she enjoys it. It has even inspired her to do an arrangement of “If I Were a Rich Man” for solo violin, which then inspired her to commission solo violin arrangements for all the other songs from “Fiddler” for an album coming out next year.
Classical Without Borders
Hall-Tompkins is often noted for her versatility. She says it’s probably why she was approached for “Fiddler,” but she says that should not be surprising for a classical musician. After all, she is working with 400 years of music, which already requires a broad understanding of different voices.
Music is capable of communicating the essence of any time period, and of conveying any emotion, she said. Film is a great example, she said, because if you take away the soundtrack and leave just the images, you realize you’ve taken all the emotion out with it.
“The music is what moves you,” she said. It’s more than playing the right notes; with her artistry and beautiful tone, she seeks to communicate something powerful.
Many say that art can touch anyone, and a side project of Hall-Tompkins’s has proved this to her time and again.
Over a decade ago, Hall-Tompkins first performed a concerto for a soup kitchen. She often runs through the music for upcoming concerts for friends, but this time she wasn’t able to arrange a run-through. She panicked, and her husband suggested she play at the shelter they would be volunteering at.
Those at the shelter were moved, intrigued, and uplifted. They asked her to play again the next day, and she did.
Seeing their reactions, Hall-Tompkins said she immediately thought of bringing chamber music to more shelters. It is interactive and engaging music, and she felt it would be food for the soul.
There is no prerequisite to becoming homeless, Hall-Tompkins added, so the people in the audience range from former Carnegie Hall ticket subscribers to people who have never heard a single classical piece. Music Kitchen is based on the theory that classical music can reach, inspire, and uplift anyone, and because the audience is completely new every time, Hall-Tompkins has to prove this theory with every performance she puts on. “And we prove the theory every single time,” she said. She aims to be classical without borders.
To date, she’s given 86 performances and collaborated with top artists like pianist Emanuel Ax and Berlin Philharmonic oboist Albrecht Mayer.
“The most important thing to me is to help the audience feel what I feel, to hear what I hear,” Hall-Tompkins said. “It’s like I have to become the music so someone can take it in and experience it. I have to digest it to render it, and as an artist, you’re never done.”
For Hall-Tompkins, being an artist is the greatest thing in the world.
“It’s being able to see the beauty in the world not only for your own personal enlightenment, but then to share that with the world,” she said.