Arts & Culture

Cameo: Tom Hall

The host of Midday on WYPR reflects on 35 years at the helm of Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

After 35 years as music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, you announced last January that you would be retiring this summer. How has it felt to prepare for your farewell show on March 11?
It’s a surreal experience. I don’t think it’s ever really hit home that this is my final year, but it’s certainly not far from the back of my mind that this is the last time we’re putting everything together. I’m in the sort of plausible deniability stage. It is, on the other hand, just like any other concert, so we have our deadlines. Once you start getting into the work itself, making sure you’re prepared to do as beautiful a concert as you can, everything else sort of falls by the wayside and you just start making music. I’m savoring every rehearsal and the chance to do this again with folks who have become my dearest friends.

You said that you felt this was just the right time—that fresh blood might be a good thing for the 51-year-old choral ensemble.
I think any arts organization can benefit from an injection of new energy, new ideas, and new perspective. None of us who run the organizations here in town—you know, Julia [Marciari-Alexander] at The Walters Art Museum, or Chris [Bedford] at The Baltimore Museum of Art, or Marin [Alsop] at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—we don’t own these organizations; we’re stewards of them. We take care of them for the time that is allotted to us, and my time has been very generous and very long. I’ve been really blessed for that and it’s been a great honor to help take care of it, nurture it, cultivate it, but now it’s somebody else’s time and turn. It’s a great job, and whoever gets it next will be walking into a really great organization with terrific people and a terrific mission to contribute to the cultural vitality of our city and region.

How have you seen Choral Arts evolve over your tenure?
The Choral Arts Society is certainly much more connected and vigorous than it was in 1982. In my first season, we did three concerts. A couple of years ago, we did 48. It’s the sheer volume of what we’re doing and the breadth of the repertoire—not just classic choral arts music but folk and jazz and popular music. We’ve got a reach that we never had before and it’s been really exciting to be a part of that.

And it’s not just that the Choral Arts Society is growing, but we’re growing along with so many other organizations. The arts scene in general in Baltimore and throughout the state has grown exponentially since I started. The number of offerings in not just music but theater, dance, literary arts, and visual arts are much more plentiful than they ever were. The DIY scene here is huge. We have so much going on creatively—in a city that is well under a million people. There’s an excitement and vitality to the arts scene in Baltimore that’s been really exciting to be a part of, and I hope Choral Arts has been a significant part of its expansion and growth.

Be it large or small-scale shows, how has it felt to stand up there and conduct?
What’s great about it now, in particular, is that I feel an even deeper bond with the people with whom I’m working. I don’t see this at all as a situation in which I’m coming in and leading something; I think of this as a situation I’m coming into and being a part of this great collection of talented, expressive, and communicative artists. There are people I’ve now known for three and a half decades, and we know each other. We’ve done this many, many times together, and each time we take the stage, it’s this great community of people who care about doing music really beautifully. Because when it’s done beautifully, it makes an important contribution to people’s lives.

Have your fellow musicians allowed you to slip in some of your favorite pieces for this final show?
You can almost count every one of them as one of my favorite pieces. These are all pieces that we’ve enjoyed over the years. It’s nice having them all together on one program.

Even after the final show, you’ll still be here in Baltimore at WYPR, where you’ve worked for the past 14 years, the last two as host of Midday. Was it ever difficult to juggle those two jobs or were they symbiotic?
They are symbiotic in that it’s the same side of the brain. When I open up a score, I take a look at it and say, ‘What makes this piece tick?’ And when I’m interviewing a guest, it’s, ‘What makes this person tick?’ They’re very similar pursuits, but the actual execution of both jobs is difficult because they are both very demanding. As I mentioned, the Choral Arts Society is way busier than it ever used to be, and it really deserves somebody who can devote a good bit of their attention to the important work that they do.

For whoever takes over your position, and for the future of Choral Arts in general, any well wishes or hopes for them, besides, obviously, the best?
I’m looking forward to being a resource to the new person in whatever way I can. But the best advice I could give anybody for any job—let alone the new director of the Choral Arts Society—is enjoy it. If you’re really having fun, if you’re really doing every rehearsal and every show, and you’re conscious of how gratifying and exciting and wonderful and enlightening it can be, and you really take the time to have the presence of mind to enjoy each and every moment . . . Because music is a temporal thing. When you’re on stage, it is a moment that is fleeting. The phrase comes and then it’s gone, and then you’re onto the next phrase.