Tom Hall '77 loves both knowing every aspect of the music he brings to life and taking risks with it.
by Maura Stephens
His résumé is so impressive that you can't help being nervous before speaking with him, imagining a worldly, lofty, perhaps somewhat standoffish "artiste." But Tom Hall '77 puts you at ease immediately. He's both intellectual and down-to-earth, likable, smart, thoughtful, kind, and funny. He loves music, his family, Ithaca, travel -- and it is clear from speaking with him for even a short time that he absolutely loves what he does.
What Tom Hall does seems superhuman. Since 1982 he's been director of choral activities at Goucher College and music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, whose chorus, chamber chorus, and orchestra perform around the United States and Europe. Choral Arts has recorded many works, including Dave Brubeck's oratorio The Gates of Justice, released this past January. The society does an annual televised special featuring different music every year, Christmas with Choral Arts; it was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1999. The choruses have been featured in documentaries on PBS and are heard regularly on public radio shows. Tom and Choral Arts have collaborated with such well-known artists as Robert Levin, James Morris, Peter Schickele, the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, and the Washington Chamber Symphony. Tom Hall has added more than 100 new works to the BCAS repertoire.
For 10 years he was chorus master of the Baltimore Opera Company. He is a popular guest conductor, performing at venues around the country and in Europe. He hosts a monthly program, Choral Arts Classics, that airs on WYPR radio. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, a half-dozen music journals, and the SIDIC Review, an international journal promoting understanding between Jews and Christians. A busy guest lecturer, he has taught at several universities and conservatories besides Goucher, and starting in January he'll be the artist in residence at Temple University, running a graduate seminar in conducting for master's and doctoral students and working with a choral ensemble. He is excited about it. "We'll do concerts," Tom says. "And the students will join BCAS in Baltimore in performing the Verdi Requiem on April 9."
Working with jazz legend Dave Brubeck
Tom Hall is a serious thinker who loves the history and theory behind everything he arranges and performs. He has prepared choruses for Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Commissiona, Helmuth Rilling, Robert Shaw, and other luminaries. He is a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.
"My position as artistic director is very fulfilling," he says. "I also enjoy guest conducting. I give lectures and enjoy the speaking engagements. When the phone rings and someone invites me to some nice place to do something, I usually say yes -- it's interesting and engaging, and it keeps me off the streets! Seriously, though, it's a nice mix of things. I do spend a lot of time in airports, which is not my favorite time, but it's worth it."
And most important, he's a husband and father. Linell Smith, a journalist with the Baltimore Sun, met Tom when she wrote a feature piece on him in 1986. "I liked her right away," Tom says of the woman he later married. "But it was just another story for her. After the story ran and there was no conflict of interest, I asked her out to dinner and did a little pursuing. The rest is history."
That history includes their 15-year-old daughter, Miranda Rose, whom Tom adores. Miranda sings in a children's chorus, plays piano, and is "a very fine dancer," says her father. "She is a great kid, not one of those terrible teens. We miss each other when I'm away, so when I'm back we make the most of it. One of the great joys of my life is being a dad."
The family travels to Ithaca at least once a year, mostly to visit two of Tom's former professors, Jim and Marge Porterfield. "And I have a very warm spot in my heart for Ithaca," Tom says. "I always liked the town, the vibrancy. In college I had a job as choir director at the First Baptist Church downtown. They were sweet to hire an undergrad who didn't have any idea what he was doing. It was a wonderful experience, with wonderful people."
The oldest of five boys, and the first member of his family to attend college, Tom wanted to help as much as he could financially. He spent his summers in Ithaca, playing popular music at various venues around town. "I worked at the Sheraton Hotel, the Holiday Inn Triphammer, the Meadow Court." He lists them off, obviously pleased at the memories. "I played guitar and sang. And I played classical guitar at L'Auberge du Couchon Rouge. I'd hitchhike there every Friday and Saturday and play until midnight. It was great -- they fed me lobster every night."
Tom had entered IC as a classical guitar major. Music professor Jim Porterfield urged him to switch to voice and choral music. "Tom had a wonderful voice, which you could tell even by listening to him sing rock music at a downtown hotel," says Jim, now retired. Jim introduced Tom to Angus Godwin, who became his much-admired voice teacher. Tom also remembers IC professors Ron Regal, Mary Arlin, and Ed Swenson fondly.
He met his lifelong mentor and friend Tom Dunn, then the longtime music director of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, when he was a sabbatical replacement in Tom's junior year. "He was one of the leading conductors of his generation," says Tom, "having established himself in New York and in Europe in the 1950s and '60s. He's the reason I went on to graduate school at Boston University; I became his graduate assistant. He and Jim Porterfield made all the difference in my professional life." Tom also sang in a professional chorus at Cornell with Tom Sokal -- just part of the professional training that would do him well later.
"I was trying to help my family with expenses; it was a busy time," Tom says. "Playing nightclubs is very good training for a conductor. You get to experiment, improvise. I developed a proclivity for risk taking that I hope I've maintained as a classical music performer. Performance should be one gigantic jump off a cliff -- every time should be as risky and 'out there' as possible. If you can't do that when you're on stage, where can you do it? It helps the audience relate to the music, and to the performer. And it's fun!"
His audiences seem to like his risk taking, as do his former professors. "We never fail to be very moved at his concerts," says Marge Porterfield. "He's a phenomenal musician. He chooses interesting works -- baroque, classical, contemporary, from all genres. He supports new composers. He is so well thought of in the music community."
Her husband concurs: "He was one of those rare students you have once in a lifetime -- an absolutely brilliant musician," says Jim Porterfield. "He took the BCAS and made it into a first-rate ensemble. In fact, I have no reservations in saying that it's the top choral group in the United States."
It's easy to see why; its director truly loves what he does and wants to make his audience happy. "It's an honor to be out there," Tom says. "Every time people show up, it's amazing and thrilling. They do their part by coming; it is up to me to deliver the goods.