Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins may be best known as a concert performer, as well as the “Fiddler” in more than 400 performances of Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” but behind the scenes she brought classical music at homeless shelters in New York and Los Angeles for over 15 years, through an organization she founded called Music Kitchen – Food for the Soul.
A concert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday will feature a song cycle called “Forgotten Voices,” based on feedback from homeless shelter clients from Music Kitchen’s first 100 concerts. The music for the songs was written by some of the finest composers in the classical world, including Courtney Bryan, Jon Grier, Gabriel Kahane, James Lee III, Beata Moon, Paul Moravec, Angélica Negrón, Kevin Puts, Steve Sandberg, Kamala Sankaram, Jeff Scott , Carlos Simon, Errollyn Wallen and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Kelly Hall-Tompkins herself.
Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins and comments on concerts by people in shelters.
I spoke to Kelly about the project in a pre-pandemic phone interview — when the entire song cycle was originally slated for a May 2020 premiere at Carnegie Hall.
The Music Kitchen idea began to develop nearly 20 years ago when Kelly was helping her husband, who coordinated the volunteer cooks for the food and shelter program at their church, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan. . At first it was strictly about volunteering at the church, “we wanted to be part of something constructive,” Kelly said.
Then one day she was trying to organize a rehearsal for an upcoming concert. As her performance date drew closer, Kelly realized she wasn’t going to be able to coordinate a practice session with friends. So she decided to just play the concerto, unaccompanied, for the people in the church shelter.
The power of their reaction surprised her. “They were so moved by the music that they asked me to come back and play the next night,” Kelly said. “I said, ‘I will, but I’m going to play the same violin concerto without accompaniment…’ and they said, ‘It’s okay, we want it. We want to hear from you again. “”
So she did, and “immediately the wheels started turning,” she said. “I realized it’s something I should be offering regularly.” She wanted to offer a real artistic offer, connect and dialogue with the public. “Connecting with the audience is a hallmark of the program.” She also wanted to play chamber music, as opposed to solo music or orchestral music. “I think chamber music is the music of the community, and it’s very powerful. In the right hands, it has the power to really grab people. I see what’s happening to people and I’m blown away.”
The first official performance of “Music Kitchen” with his quartet was memorable – and not just for the music.
“It turns out the volunteer cook didn’t show up that night, which happened sometimes,” Kelly said. “We had just rehearsed Brahms’ Quartet in A minor, and we were expecting to come and play. But we arrived in a room where there was no smell of food!” (she laughed)
“In these emergency situations, the volunteer coordinator would usually call to order a pizza, to make sure a meal would be served,” she said, “but the other violinist at that gig, Asmira ( Woodward-Page), said: “You can’t make them eat pizza, you have to cook! And I thought, “Are you kidding me? They’re supposed to be here in 10 minutes!” But she insisted, ‘We have to do it!'”
“So somehow she rallied us to this impossible task,” Kelly said. “We went to the kitchen and everything was frozen! But we managed to improvise a pasta sauce. we played our Brahms Quartet.”
As Kelly has performed in concert halls around the world, she has found that at the shelter, the emotional connection to music is palpable.
For example, she once played Brahms’ A minor quartet at the refuge, and “in seven bars the audience in the front row leaned forward,” she said. “They were looking at us back and forth, to follow every line. In seven or eight bars, they were cheering the rise and fall of the phrases. And in half a page, another listener burst into tears. I feel so deeply about that Brahms music, and there we were, playing for an audience of people in a homeless shelter who were just as emotional as we were, and that ultimately changed our performance.
While some people may attend classical concerts for social reasons, the feedback Kelly receives from clients at the homeless shelter is 100% about the music and the performance. “You know it really hits the mark, and it will make you want to come back again and again,” she said. “These are people who are in a particularly receptive, emotional and vulnerable state. They understand right away.”
Kelly officially founded Music Kitchen in 2015, with a mission “to bring together the best professional musicians to share the inspiring, therapeutic and uplifting power of music with people experiencing homelessness,” Kelly said. “I believe that a refuge exists to provide not only physical but emotional and spiritual support to those who, for whatever reason, have lost the foundations of their homes and communities.” Since then, Music Kitchen has served over 30,000 clients in 10 shelters in New York and Los Angeles.
After each concert, Kelly collected thoughts and reactions from homeless shelter clients, who recorded them on colorful cards. When she started reading them, she was deeply moved. “Roaming doesn’t have one voice. It doesn’t have one style and it doesn’t have one look,” she said. “It’s been really fascinating for me to see what people call out to.” Some excerpts from these comments:
- “Even in the darkest times, these ropes give hope.”
- “You made my day.”
- “Your music claims my soul – I need more music than you play, it keeps my mind stress free.”
- “I have never been so close to a violin, so emotional…Music Kitchen has been a blessing to my starving body and soul. How do I get the violin to speak like that?”
- “You have a way of taking my troubles, my poison, and turning it into medicine. What kind of men can stand still when you play?”
- “Music is love, it is the awakening of freedom…”
“I collected hundreds of these comments,” Kelly said, “and that’s what gave me the idea to create ‘Forgotten Voices,’ to celebrate and elevate their voices.”
With support from Carnegie Hall, Music Kitchen commissioned composers to create songs based on these words. Each song in the cycle received its world premiere in a shelter, starting in 2018 and premiering monthly.
For Kelly, the many gigs she performed for Music Kitchen were “a true commitment to the idea that classical music is for everyone,” she said. “It shows me, every time, how true it is.”
* * *
For more information on Thursday’s “Forgotten Voices” at Carnegie Hall, please click here.
You might also like:
* * *
We wanted you to read this article before we pitch our newsletter, unlike so many other websites. If you appreciate this – and our efforts to promote excellence in string playing, teaching, performance and community – please click here to sign up for our free bi-weekly newsletter. And if you are already registered, do not hesitate to invite your friends! Thank you.