American Heart: the Music Kitchen Performs for the Homeless

Photo: American Heart: the Music Kitchen Performs for the Homeless: New York Musicians Put on Free Concerts in Homeless Shelters

The melodies from the world's great classics play all over New York City, echoing from great halls like the ones at Lincoln Center, down to the deep tunnels of the city's subways. People pay to see performers at the top of their field, or they toss spare change at street performers.

But one night last week on New York's Upper West Side, five soloists from the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Bach Vespers choir gave a very different performance. They sang music from the Renaissance to the Baroque, from Orlando di Lassus to Johann Michael Bach. They ended the night with an American spiritual called "Give Me Jesus."

Their audience? A group of homeless men.

Some of them showed up in the church basement, expecting to be served sloppy joes, not treated to a concert. One man said, "I expected to come in here and eat, sleep and then get tossed."

Instead, they got to listen to the Music Kitchen. Its mission is to bring what founder Kelly Hall-Tompkins calls "the inspirational, therapeutic, and uplifting power of music" to New York City's homeless population.

Hall-Tompkins, a professional freelance violinist who has performed in the New York Philharmonic and is a member of the New Jersey Symphony, wears many hats for the Music Kitchen. She does everything that has to be done as the organization's founder, director, public relations manager, violinist, and chief fundraiser, to name a few of her responsibilities.

"Music Kitchen, I've presented, in five years, 42 concerts, engaged almost 70 of New York's greatest artists on a shoestring budget," she said.

She came up with the idea five years ago. As a professional musician, Hall-Tompkins often did run-throughs of her concert repertoire for friends and colleagues. Her husband, who at the time coordinated volunteer cooks for their church's homeless shelter program, made an offhand suggestion that she run through her upcoming violin concerto for the homeless one time when her friends weren't available.

That got her thinking about many things: her grandmother's weekly commitment to feeding the homeless, her own love of chamber music, and her visceral response to the warmth and informality of her colleagues' yearly chamber music party. She started Music Kitchen a year later.

"It's such a joy to present repertoire that I think will move people," she said.

While the shelter dishes out food for the body, Music Kitchen dishes up food for the soul. Kelly asks highly regarded musicians to perform in intimate settings for a neglected population.

The audience isn't always open to it in the beginning. "Initially I was a little hesitant," said Melvin Lewis, one of the men staying at the shelter, "but once I sat down and I opened up my ears, it was different."

Tompkins-Hall says this happens often with Music Kitchen. She told ABC News, "It's been fairly consistent that if there are people that are skeptical about the music or the experience when they come in, by the time they've left they've had whatever degree of shell that they've walked in with cracked open a little bit."

Most often homeless shelters serve the basics: food and shelter. Hall-Tompkins argues passionately that what their residents are missing is beauty.

"I think that when you're fighting every day for the practical considerations of life -- just basic shelter and basic income and health and that kind of thing -- it's easier to be stretched to the very limits of our existence, she said. "And I think when you can bring the arts, when you can bring music and soothe people and inspire them to a different reality, if only temporarily, then I think it's really important to do."

Lewis agreed. "It's soothing. When you are going through some of the things that we're going through, living the life that we're living basically right now, we need something to just calm us."

In its fifth year, for its forty-second concert, Music Kitchen featured the Bach Vespers vocal soloists. Four men gathered in the church basement to eat dinner and listen.

And then something happened that surprised Hall-Tompkins. She asked if the men had any questions. One, sitting eating dinner, asked "Can I join you?" He jumped up and followed carefully along with the musicians as they sang a German cantata -- "Herr, Wenn Ich Dich Nur Habe" (Lord, if I Have Thee Only) by Johann Michael Bach.

Hall-Tompkins's foundation does have impact. "For people to come from outside and actually do that for us, it shows that at least someone cares," said Melvin Lewis.

Kelly Hall-Tompkins said she was gratified.

"I enjoy breaking down the barriers and just really reaching people through what I love most, which is music." she said.

For more information about The Music Kitchen, visit www.MusicKitchenNYC.org.

For more about its founder, visit www.KellyHall-Tompkins.com

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