By Laurence Vittes
“Kelly is the Fiddler on Broadway!” read an email Kelly Hall-Tompkins sent to friends recently after landing the gig as the Broadway Orchestra’s concertmaster in Fiddler on the Roof. Like other concert violinists performing Fiddler music—the 1971 film featured none other than Isaac Stern—Hall-Tompkins also plays all the solos, in this case while dancer Jesse Kovarsky mimes the fiddler onstage, playing on a violin strung with plastic strings muted with felt.
Hall-Tompkins is an entrepreneur whose concert and recital work, touring, educational activities, composition, and humanitarian initiatives range widely. Her music video for “Pure Imagination” garnered more than 400,000 YouTube views; her Music Kitchen outreach concerts, which bring great performances to NYC shelters, is now in its 12th season; and she admits to being an avid polyglot.
I spoke to Hall-Tompkins during “perhaps the busiest week of my life,” just after her return from a multi-city tour, giving a network TV interview, and delivering a televised speech in Detroit before two days of cast recordings for Fiddler, including a bonus track, a solo arrangement by John Williams.
How hard is the ‘Fiddler’ music to play?
The notes are all very playable. There is a big run that is reminiscent of the final runs in the Sibelius or Barber Concertos, and another passage that is like Prokofiev meets Kreisler. Other moments remind me of Bloch, the Glazunov Concerto, and a Brahms Sonata. As with all music, the magic and the difficulty come in making the notes express profound truths and beauty. And though I love where I’ve taken the music so far on the one hand, on the other hand I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.
How has the experience influenced the way you play other music?
I have discovered that performing as a soloist eight times a week not only has a great effect on my playing, but also focuses the way I prepare, which is already pretty detail-oriented. This even-more focused preparation elevates my other repertoire. Some examples: I returned from playing a concert at Carnegie Hall one night recently and noticed an enhanced clarity, ring, and fluency in my playing. The same was true for some recitals I played in Florida a few weeks ago. I also feel my natural affinity for the Fiddler flavor increasing with each show; it is definitely enlivening my approach to similarly themed solo music. And of course, that’s how I approach everything—nothing is just “what it is,” it is also what you make it.
How much improvisation and spontaneity can you bring to your performances from night to night?
Eight shows a week have given me a wonderful opportunity to explore the paradox of consistency as well as evolution: I love working deeper each night to achieve my ideal of a particular musical idea, but when the spirit moves me, I will try something new on the spot or evolve in a new direction. My work with Jesse Kovarsky, the dancer who plays the fiddler onstage, consists of teaching him my bowings and inflections, which he reproduces visually. So for the solos that he mimes (which aren’t all the solos), I cannot change too drastically from performance to performance. I have new sessions with him if I want to significantly change something. Jesse assimilates the movements quickly, and is so cued in to what I am doing with the music that I can also be a bit spontaneous. Additionally, I take liberties here and there with the score, adding additional notes for color or style.
It sounds like a very collaborative experience.
It is. I can see most of the scenes as they are happening onstage from my spot in the pit, and the actors tell me they enjoy watching me as much as I enjoy watching them. I know their lines and like hearing them strike their pitch-perfect inflections, as well as injecting new and different shades of meaning into their delivery. In several scenes, their acting directly influences how I play solos.
Are there any bad habits this performance environment might encourage?
It’s easy for some folks playing a show to slide on giving vibrato to little notes and pizzicatos, which would ultimately be bad for their technique. I try to play even the smallest, non-solo, ensemble notes vibrantly.
What do the actual parts look like?
We started out with pristine printed parts by a wonderful copyist. But then came numerous changes, additions, and cuts to the arrangements during rehearsals continuing through the weeks of previews.
We had to read parts decorated with strikethroughs, white-out tape, and hand-written changes until the copyist could catch up with all the changes and print out new pristine parts.