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A New York Times feature article (January 3, 2017) began with a pop quiz: Who plays the title role in the new Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof?" The answer is not Danny Burstein (who gets top billing as Tevye) but two people: Jesse Kovarsky, the dancer posing onstage with air violin, and Kelly Hall-Tompkins, the pit orchestra's concertmaster who plays all the solos, many written especially for her. Hall-Tompkins' run on Broadway has now ended after nearly 500 performances in thirteen months, and she is back to her former life as a praised classical violinist performing with orchestra and chamber music ensembles, and in solo concerts.
Hall-Tompkins appeared in Asheville on Friday as part of the Mainstage Series at Diana Wortham Theatre, bringing with her more than a hint of Broadway. Drama students are taught to be a triple threat – able to act, sing and dance – outstanding in one or two categories but capable in all three. The world of professional music is edging towards that. Modern audiences will not sit still for a Classical concert where the soloist comes from the wings, bows and performs with no audience contact except through the music. They want more than just the audible experience.
Hall-Tompkins explored new avenues in reaching the audience. She created a philanthropic endeavor entitled "Music Kitchen – Food for the Soul" that brings chamber music to homeless shelters. Her 2014 music video, which couples Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 6 with her own jazz arrangement of "Pure Imagination," has over a million views on YouTube.
Her credentials as a classical violinist are unquestioned. She studied with Charles Castleman at Eastman School of Music, and then in New York with Glenn Dicterow, New York Philharmonic concertmaster. She has been a section player in the New Jersey Symphony and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and is the founding concertmaster of the Chamber Orchestra of New York. She has performed crossover music with Mark O'Connor and in Bargemusic concerts in New York. Her chamber music appearances have included the Garth Newel Music Center in Virginia and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild in North Carolina. She has appeared with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra in her hometown of Greenville, SC.
This concert, a combination of Classical, movie, and Broadway music, did not come with a printed program. The audience heard Hall-Tompkins make extensive introductions of each work from the stage. Her choice of material was appropriate and thoughtful, and her public speaking style was engaging. It created a bond with the audience that carried over to their behavior during the performances. I have seldom heard and seen five hundred people so quiet and motionless as during a pianissimo pizzicato passage in "Fiddler."
The program began with Ástor Piazzolla's famous composition "Histoire du Tango," originally written for flute and guitar but in this case performed on violin and piano. Craig Ketter was the fine collaborative pianist for the evening, attuned to every nuance. The work traces the history of the Argentinian tango from the bordello to the cafe to the nightclub. Hall-Tompkins' sonorities in the third movement reminded me of Stéphane Grappelli.
In several quick changes of pace, the two musicians performed her arrangements of "Pure Imagination" (from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and the theme from Schindler's List (with some interesting overtone sonorities). The arrangers of this revival of Fiddler on the Roof rewrote many solos especially for her Broadway run. (Not every Broadway violinist has her virtuosity.) She is now composing solo violin arrangements of the major tunes, and four of these concluded the first half of the program. "If I Were a Rich Man" as a habanera was especially appealing.
The second half of the program began with an eighteenth century classical work, the Sonata in B-flat of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. A confidante of Marie Antoinette, the Chevalier, born in Guadeloupe, was France's most esteemed fencer. Despite being the colonel of the Légion Sainte-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, he survived the French Revolution but died a few years later. This sonata shows skill and explains why the composer and expert violinist was known in France as the "Black Mozart."
That petite piece of salon music was followed by a lengthy 1887 work, the Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18 by Richard Strauss, then in his early twenties. The unusual feature of this traditional work is the second movement, entitled "Improvisation (Andante Cantabile)." Hall-Tompkins suggested the movement reflected Old Vienna with its Sacher torte mit schlag. I thought the music evoked the avenues and palaces of the Hapsburg capital more than it did Viennese pastry.
As Hall-Tompkins and Ketter delivered a brief encore, I reflected on the entire program. I believe we were shown the future path of the Classical recital. More informal, more diverse, more appeal to the audience – and I liked it.