Kelly Hall-Tompkins: A Musician with a Mission
Volume 116, No. 6June, 2016
Meet the newest fiddler of “Fiddler on the Roof”! Kelly Hall-Tompkins, a member of Local 802 since 1994, is the concertmaster of the Tony-nominated revival, which is running at the Broadway Theater. “Fiddler” is her first experience playing in a Broadway pit, and what a perfect introduction – a classic show with great music and a pivotal role as the fiddler.
Hall-Tompkins is an accomplished violinist with a flourishing career. She performs as a soloist, concertmaster and chamber musician with a diverse variety of orchestras and ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Jacksonville Symphony, Tulsa Philharmonia, and the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. She is also violinist with the Ritz Chamber Players in Jacksonville, Florida, an ensemble that promotes African-American artists and composers.
As a first-timer on Broadway, she is thrilled to be playing the timeless music of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was composed by Jerry Block. Hall-Tompkins beamed as she told me about her experience. “I am having a blast,” she said. “The violin is critical to the story’s evolution. It is a true collaboration between me, the music and what’s happening on stage.”
In this production, director Bartlett Sher pays homage to the famous Chagall painting of the same title. To accomplish the dreamy effect of the painting, Sher chose to use a dancer for the on-stage role of the fiddler, who has to mime playing the violin while at times flying 75 feet above the stage – an impossible feat for the real violinist. The dancer is Jesse Kovarsky, who actually has studied violin. Hall-Tompkins enjoys working with him, and the strong connection forged between the two helps to create the dramatic illusion for audiences and actors alike. That connection is important, she says, explaining that “the actors constantly tell me they feel like the violin is another character in the show.”
There is one major impediment, however. The concertmaster cannot actually see the on-stage action for many of the crucial scenes involving the fiddler. Without the proper sight lines, the responsibility falls on conductor Ted Sperling, who must maintain the constant and essential communication between the dancer and the true fiddler in the pit. When I saw the show, the synergy was flawless. The iconic music soared from Hall-Tompkins in the pit while the Kovarsky mimed the fiddle playing to perfection.
But there’s more to this dynamic violinist than meets the eye. Hall-Tompkins is a musician with a mission. As president and founder of Music Kitchen, a not-for-profit organization, Hall-Tompkins provides music to people living in homeless shelters. She brings top emerging and established professional musicians together in order to share the inspirational, therapeutic and uplifting power of music.
Hall-Tompkins recounted the beginnings of this wonderful project. “I was preparing for a concert in 2004 when a close friend died,” she told me. “He was the pastor at our neighborhood church where my husband and I volunteer as cooks for the homeless shelter. I always like to play through my concert program beforehand for a group of people. But with the pastor’s death, I wasn’t able to pull together a formal run-through. Someone suggested I rehearse for the people in the homeless shelter. I did – a concerto with no accompaniment. The audience was so moved and loved it so much, they invited me to play it again the next night – and from there, Music Kitchen was born.”
Music Kitchen has been serving up great musical meals ever since. For the past 10 years, it has sponsored 80 concerts in the Manhattan area, featuring over 150 artists including the likes of Emanuel Ax, Glenn Dicterow and Arturo O’Farrill, as well as many talented, young emerging artists.
Hall-Tompkins speaks passionately about this work. “The joy of making music is augmented by the joy of sharing it with a completely under-served audience,” she said. Even with her busy performing schedule, she continues to direct all aspects of the business side of Music Kitchen – procuring funding, managing the scheduling and publicity for the concerts, contacting the homeless shelters, coordinating the artists – and often participating as performer as well.
The experience of these concerts has had a profound effect on everyone involved. Hall-Tompkins has seen first-hand the transformative power of classical music. “When we begin a concert,” she said, “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. They are smiling and relaxed and involved. It’s a powerful experience for everyone.”
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 tribulation. Thank you for coming over.” 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.”
Hall-Tompkins is clearly a talented, motivated musician. But more than that, she is a creative artist who understands the transformative power of classical music. Through her various projects, she is exploring the many ways in which she can share that experience. As Tevye says at the opening of “Fiddler on the Roof”: “Our lives are as precarious as the perch of a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune.” Somehow Kelly Hall-Tompkins remains balanced and focused as an artist, a person and ambassador of music. Hers is more than a simple little tune – it is a glorious aria.
Local 802 member Kelly Hall-Tompkins has received accolades fro her violin work in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. But she also provides music for homeless families living in shelters through her work with the Music Kitchen. Below are photos from a recent concert at the Music Kitchen. For more information, see www.MusicKitchenNYC.org.