Conductor Found Mission In Baltimore

April 28, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When Tom Hall was a young man living in Atlanta, just after finishing college and while trying to find himself as a musician, he took all kinds of jobs.

"I was both a lounge lizard and a church singer," says Hall, with a twinkle in his eye.

It's impossible to conceive of Hall, the music director of the Balti- more Choral Arts Society and one of the area's best loved and most respected musicians, as a lounge lizard. He's the kind of guy who ,8l wouldn't even cheat at tennis.

But singing in bars is just one thing this former classical guitarist and classically trained singer did during the year he spent as a moonlighting high school music teacher. For Hall is a musician of considerable breadth -- something that is reflected in his programming.

In his nine years as head of BCAS -- perhaps the city's premiere choral group, which is marking its 25th anniversary -- Hall has not repeated a single work. Not only has he performed great but rarely performed Haydn Masses, he has paid attention to such obscure 20th century masterpieces as those of Benjamin Britten and even commissioned new works.

Now Hall, 36, is readying himself, his 30 musicians and his 80 choristers for the supreme challenge in choral music -- a &L performance this Saturday in Meyerhoff Hall of what may be the greatest piece of music ever written, Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Not only has Hall planned the performance of this 3-hour-and-20-minute marathon, but he also organized a symposium last week -- in cooperation with the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies -- that brought internationally distinguished scholars to the College of Notre Dame to discuss questions that have vexed performances of the work since World War II.

Put simply, the questions have to do with anti-Semitism. Matthew wrote his gospel 60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, when the early Christians were trying to distance themselves from the Jews, from whom they were then almost indistinguishable, and to absolve the Roman authorities of any responsibility for crucifying the Christian Messiah.

But if Matthew's Gospel is anti-Semitic, Bach's setting isn't. For Bach hired a poet specifically to write additional verses to emphasize that guilt for the crucifixion falls upon the individual Christian sinner (and not an entire people). And the experience of the music proclaims that the proper response to Jesus' sacrificial love is love itself -- and for all human beings.

"The idea behind the symposium was to bring people closer to the piece so that they could be closer to one another," Hall says. "I can't help but believe that artistic expression should be used for noble purposes. The more we know, the more we love. The more we understand our responses to art, the better we will understand and appreciate each other."

Hall's performance practices tend to be as historically informed as his social thought is enlightened. While his orchestra does not use replicas of original instruments, its performances, as well as the performances of his singers, generally reflect Hall's up-to-the-latest-dissertation knowledge of performance practice, whether it be embellishments in a Bach cantata or the proper pronunciation of Latin in Vienna at the time of Haydn and Mozart.

As a child Hall grew up in a house filled with music -- his father was an executive for RCA Records -- and a career in music seemed almost preordained.

"But I had -- and still have -- a very practical disposition," he says. "So when I entered [Ithaca College in upstate New York] I decided to major in education -- no one needs a degree in performance to perform. If things didn't work out, I'd be a high school teacher."

But in his junior year, Hall took a course from a visiting professor from Boston University -- Thomas Dunn, the distinguished conductor who was then the music director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society. Hall struck up a friendship with Dunn and went to hear his teacher conduct Handel's "Messiah" in Boston's Symphony Hall.

"Until I heard that performance, I had never made the connection between studying music and doing music," Hall says. "Listening to what so professional a chorus and orchestra could do made me wish to get involved with professional music rather than be a teacher."

But after graduation, he went to Atlanta to become a high school teacher and a free-lance musician, singing in clubs, churches and in radio jingles.

"In many ways that was a good year," he says. "I sang with Bob Shaw's Atlanta Symphony Chorus, hung around Shaw's rehearsals with the Atlanta Symphony and learned a lot. But I knew that I needed to go back to school."

Dunn recalls: "One day Tom called me and said, 'You've got to get me out of here!' When most people tell me that they want to become conductors, I tell them that if it's at all possible they should do something else -- it's a career that depends so much on caprice and luck. But Tom was as intelligent, talented and persuasive then as he is now."

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