A Moveable Feast

Delivering food for the soul at Music Kitchen.

By Laura Smith

Steinway Artist Emanuel Ax is in a homeless shelter in New York City. The legendary pianist is relaxed and chatty, seated before a piano and getting ready to play. The room is large, spare, white-walled — a venue suitable for classes, meetings, support groups. The audience — some three dozen adults and a few small children — is attentive and wide-eyed, if a touch restive. The mood feels more like an upbeat school assembly than what it is: one of the world’s most accomplished pianists at the keys of an imposing steinway concert grand. And that’s just the point: this performance is designed to bring world-class chamber music to those who might not otherwise have access to it. This isn’t Carnegie Hall. This is Music Kitchen. 

The Music Kitchen program — a moveable feast of sorts that brings chamber music to area shelters and drop-in centers — is the brainchild of Kelly Hall-Tompkins, a concert violinist who has performed around the world and who was the “fiddler” for the Bartlett Sher production of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. But she’s also a passionate advocate for the homeless. She founded Music Kitchen with the goal of delivering high-level chamber music to shelters, and she has since produced nearly 100 concerts, including this one, which will feature Ax on piano and Hall-Tompkins herself on violin. The piano is on loan from steinway & sons, a longtime friend of Music Kitchen.

The group in the shelter quiets. Hall-Tompkins makes a few opening remarks and then raises her violin to her shoulder. Her approach is casual and disarming; the audience is fully engaged as she and Ax perform Fiddler Rhapsody and then Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata. Hall-Tompkins turns it over to Ax, who is ready with some instructive banter before his next piece. 

“Anybody ever hear of variations?” he asks. He’s going to demonstrate the concept. And the irony, it seems, may not be lost on him. The people in front of him are well acquainted with variations — they’ve survived a raft of changes in their lives that have brought them to their current state, as residents of a homeless shelter. The question lingers for a moment. Ax presses on. “Here we go,” he says. And he begins to play. The steinway springs to life at his fingertips. The white walls seem to pulse with the enormity and beauty of the sound. And just like that, the people in the room are no longer homeless. They’re no longer weighted down by fear and frustration and worry. Just like that, they’re transported.

Hall-Tompkins started Music Kitchen in 2005.

At the time, she and her husband, Joe, had been volunteering at a church shelter near New York’s Lincoln Center. That’s where she began to understand the peculiarities and challenges of homelessness. “The nature of homelessness is that it’s a very fluid category,” she said. “People move in and out of it sometimes. Homeless people come from very different backgrounds; you really have no idea what happened in their lives to bring them to their current situation.” Hall-Tompkins began playing at the shelter, initially to give herself an opportunity to “play through” a concerto she was working on in front of an audience. “I was working on a new concerto, and I had a concert coming up in a couple of days.” Normally, she said, she’d play-through in front of live listeners as a vital form of practice. “All my friends were busy, and I needed someone. At first, I thought, it’s a violin concerto with no accompaniment — who wants to hear that but a musician? It seemed to be asking a lot. But I needed to play through in front of an audience, and they seemed willing. So, I went there and they absolutely loved it, and the shelter organizers asked me if I would come back the next night. I said, ‘Sure, but I’m going to play the same music.’ They said they didn’t care. And they seemed to love it even more the next time through. They were simply so engaged in the music.”

 

Hall-Tompkins said her mind immediately started “clicking away.” It wasn’t about concertos and play-through, she realized. It was about the powerful fellowship of music. She remembered participating in chamber music parties as a student, remembered the thrill of bringing people together to celebrate music. “Whether the other musicians were old friends or whether you were just meeting them as you sat down to play, there was always a magic that occurred when we started to experience music together. It’s something about the language of chamber music. I knew I wanted to find a way to bring this energy to the underserved population of homeless people.” Hall-Tompkins cultivated patrons and raised enough money to get the program up and running, and she began reaching out to her professional relationships with other musicians and organizations to help support the project. From there, the trust and momentum began to build. “The trust that colleagues already have in me is what allows me to successfully ask them to take a leap of faith into an environment as unfamiliar as a homeless shelter,” she said. “And it is trust that some artists and organizations, such as steinway, already have in other artists, such as Emanuel Ax, that helps to facilitate their involvement. I am happy that Music Kitchen, though still small, is now its own established brand and frequently received requests for collaboration.”

Still, those early days of getting the program off the ground were tentative, in Hall-Tompkins’ mind. “I spent probably years thinking ‘O.K., this is the time it’s not going to work,’ before every Music Kitchen performance,” she said. “But it’s never happened. The residents and clients of the shelters hear the music and their entire dispositions transform. You see it happen right before your eyes. They are transported — they think about other times in their lives, and they think about their futures, perhaps with new inspiration. It’s tremendously gratifying to see how music can evoke such powerful responses.” 

Ax agrees, though he’s quick to credit Hall-Tompkins as the tireless energy behind the scenes. “I am just so impressed with Kelly’s devotion and her ability to get stuff done,” he said. “That’s why I got involved. I could see clearly that this is a wonderful program she’s developed and she’s been putting so much energy into it from day one. I’m happy to help out when I can.”

‘Homeless people come from very different backgrounds. you really have no idea what happened in their lives to bring them into their current situation.’

 

Hall-Tompkins said she began to formulate a more accurate picture of the nature of homelessness through her work with Music Kitchen. Some people, she said, had been prosperous in the past but had fallen on hard times due to illness or personal tragedy, including one woman who’d lost her home and her entire family in a fire. Another homeless client approached Hall-Tompkins after a performance and told her she’d once been a Carnegie Hall subscriber; her mother had been a Carnegie Hall donor. “The woman said to me, ‘Did you ever meet Karajan? Oh, of course you didn’t meet him. You’re too young for that.’ And then that left me thinking, ‘Did she meet Karajan?’ It’s pretty extraordinary, having these kinds of conversations with people in a homeless shelter,” Hall-Tompkins said. 

Hall-Tompkins has frequently sought the help of steinway & sons, noting that the addition of an iconic steinway grand to the performance elevates the quality of the performances and adds an additional thrill for clients who may never have heard the unmistakable sound of a steinway and who can’t believe that one is being brought to them in a homeless shelter. “I was really pleased when I contacted steinway and found how willing they were to be a part of Music Kitchen,” she said. “I think it was maybe a little confusing in the beginning, what exactly I was proposing. They said, ‘Wait, you want us to bring a piano where?’ But ultimately, they were super generous in making it happen, and they’ve helped several times since then.”

“When Kelly first approached us about seeking steinway’s support of Music Kitchen, we were intrigued,” said Brad Curtin, steinway’s Operations Manager for Concert Service. “We had a few logistical questions; normally steinways are destined for concert halls or large performing arts venues, not homeless shelters. But once we worked out the details, we were very glad to have the opportunity to participate.”

Ax, too, was happy to have the steinway at his disposal for the most recent Music Kitchen concert, noting that the piano enhanced the experience not just for the audience, but for himself, as well. “To be able to go to a place that’s out of the way, that’s obviously not designed for concerts, and then to have that kind of amazing instrument to play on — it’s a great treat. The pianist always needs something nice to play on. If you have a steinway, you have what you always dream about.”

Hall-Tompkins is passionate about continuing her work with Music Kitchen for many years. But she’s a realist about the continuity of her audience. “Unlike a typical concert series, where you want to cultivate an audience who will come to see you again and again, we hope to not have the opportunity to do that at Music Kitchen,” she says. “Because, well obviously, we want people to succeed in getting the pieces of their lives put back together. In the interim, this program delivers a powerful and inspiring experience to people at a time in their lives when they would not otherwise have access to it. Music Kitchen is focused on an important mission: delivering the power of music to a completely non-served audience.” 

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