Shared Sound, Shared Emotion

For Choral Arts Society director Tom Hall, choral music is about bringing people together -- and not just the singers.

Classical Music

November 04, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As Tom Hall sees it, a chorus is more than an assembly of high- and low-voiced singers from both genders. It is the embodiment of what is meant by the word "community."

That's one reason Hall has enjoyed a long tenure as music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

"Most choral music is uttered in the plural pronoun, rather than the singular," Hall says. "In opera, when we watch Tosca and Scarpia battle it out, we relate to them individually. Choral music involves shared aspirations and hopes."

Hall, 46, who will lead the society's season-opening program this afternoon in Towson, has been thinking a lot lately about shared aspirations and hopes -- as well as shared fears.

Today's concert was to have been a celebration of his 20th season at the helm of the 100-voice chorus, which has been a valued fixture on the local music scene for 36 years. The idea was to re-create Hall's first program with the ensemble -- works by Handel and Britten that celebrate music and its patron saint, Cecilia.

Then came Sept. 11.

"Right after the attacks, people were asking me if we were going to change the program," Hall says. "I felt we needed to respond in an artistic way to what happened in September.

"Each of our concerts has a reason. Our mission is to connect with people, and, therefore, have people connect with each other and with us. It would have been a missed opportunity not to change the program and reflect on what happened."

Hall came up with two compositions -- Brahms' Nanie and Haydn's Mass in Time of War.

"This music has something to say," Hall says. "The Brahms work is a personal take on grief; he wrote it in memory of a painter whose work he greatly admired.

"The Haydn Mass is a universal take on faith and the comfort that faith allows; it's a collective response. Yes, it's a Catholic text, but with very basic concepts that are uttered in community -- Dona nobis pacem [Grant us Peace] being the most important."

Hall found other significant connective points about the two pieces. Haydn wrote his Mass in Vienna as Napoleon's forces were advancing on the city.

"Everyone was wondering what would happen, how bad it was going to be," Hall says. "It is much how we feel collectively at this moment, when we think twice about opening a letter, getting on an airplane or walking into a building."

Consoling sentiments

In the case of Brahms' Nanie, Hall was struck by some of the words in the text by great German poet Friedrich von Schiller, who evoked an ancient Roman dirge. The opening line -- "Even the beautiful must die" -- seemed all too relevant. But there is a consoling thought as well in the verses.

"At the end of the piece," Hall says, "Brahms brings back the penultimate line of the poem -- 'To be a lament in the mouth of the beloved is beautiful.' I thought about that line when my wife and I were at Ground Zero in New York recently, seeing all the memorials that have been put up along the streets for the victims.

"I hope this music can be a part of how people reflect on what has happened -- is happening. It will be good for us to be out there together in the theater and not hiding in our houses."

Hall has savored the experience of bringing people together -- to sing or to listen -- since attending a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston when he was a junior in college.

"I thought it was incredible," he says, "and I realized then that I wanted to do that."

Hall eventually worked as an assistant to the director of the Handel and Haydn Society and got a chance to guest-conduct Messiah with the group in Boston's Symphony Hall. That achievement would not have been predicted for the Tom Hall of the 1970s, who loved rock and roll and played guitar in bars.

"I realized I could play Light My Fire every night, or maybe conduct the Faure Requiem 20 times," Hall says.

Once he chose classical music and, specifically, its choral branch, the New Jersey-born Hall never looked back. After finishing work on a master's degree at Boston University, he was soon directing several area choral groups.

"I had six part-time jobs, between community choruses and teaching," Hall says. "Then this job came open in Baltimore. It paid what all six jobs in Boston paid together."

During his first rehearsal with the Choral Arts Society, the new director remembers being impressed by what he heard as the singers sight-read Handel's Alexander's Feast. He also remembers quickly realizing that it wasn't really his chorus yet.

"They had been under the tutelage of the founding director," he says, "so I knew it would take a while to have my personality register with them. But I have never met resistance. The singers are open to things they haven't done that way before.

"They have tried hard to get into my rhythm, my way of doing things. Now, when I stop them in rehearsal, 70 percent know what we're stopping for, what measure we're going to go back to."

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