By Charles Mombo
Meet Michael Hall. Michael is a passionate musician who typically travels over 200,000 miles a year around the world to perform and teach. As an incredibly lucky person, he has performed for three former presidents, the King of Thailand, had over 90 composers write music for him, traveled and performed as a soloist around the world many times over. Michael also love teaching the next generation. He has been lucky to serve on the faculty of four universities, as well as arts academies. A recent project includes helping to found the Bandung Philharmonic, the first professional orchestra in Indonesia. In addition to serving as the orchestra’s co-Artistic Director, he’s also the Director of Education. The orchestra’s free music education program has blossomed and serves students in orphanages, community centers, and refugee centers housing families from Syria, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. According to Michael, “It’s incredibly rewarding to witness the student’s success!”
You may have recently heard him performed solo recitals in Chicago at the Ear Taxi or Thirsty Ears Festivals. One of his favorite annual concerts is being part of the Too Hot To Handel concert celebrating MLK at the Auditorium Theater. Plus, he has recorded for nine different labels, as well as on movie soundtracks.
He spent much of his childhood in what was then called Children’s Memorial Hospital, now the Lurie Children’s Hospital. Eighteen years of orthopedic surgeries was a constant reminder for him not to take anything for granted, including his ability to walk – which was seriously threatened. He never considered this childhood as unusual until the day his doctor came in with the concern he might be paralyzed. Fortunately, his doctor, Dr. Mihran Tachdjian, was the world leading pediatric orthopedic surgeon who worked miracles that granted Michael the ability to walk – and eventually run. In 2009, he completed the Chicago Marathon as part of the Children’s Memorial Hospital team, raising money for the institution that helped open the world to him.
Michael said, “The entire time in the hospital, I watched the Chicago skyline grow and change, which fueled my life-long love of architecture, and the way how people and communities live and interact.” He also added, “Chicago is after all the quintessential American city, not only because it is the first major city to develop in the US after we gained independence, but because of the people.”
After receiving his doctorate from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, he returned to Hyde Park in 1997 to continue his performing, teaching, and community building activities. He cares deeply about connecting with people, but he especially enjoys bringing people together. According to Michael, empowering others is thrilling.
Michael is also a proud father of two daughters, and a husband to a beautiful wife who teaches at a Chicago Public School. He really loves coffee and frequently (before the pandemic) enjoyed the Mocha Diablo at Robust Coffee in Woodlawn.
Q. What inspired you to pursue music as a career and why the viola?
At age six, while in the hospital, I spent many hours playing piano by ear. My doctor, however, was not fond of me twisting my torso to play the piano while I was in traction. My parents knew how much I loved music, so when they saw a sign on a shop window reading “Violin – $60 ,” they thought they had found a solution. I adored the instrument! Either I showed great promise, or I sounded terrible, because all the nurses were encouraging my parents to find me a private teacher. DePaul University School of Music was across the street from the hospital at that time. My parents were able to find a violin graduate student to come into the hospital to teach me.
When I opened my case the first thing the teacher said was, “Huh…That’s not a violin! It’s a Viola!” I had no idea what a viola was, but I loved the instrument and didn’t care what it was called. It was mine and I’ve been playing viola ever since.
Q. What distinguishes the viola from the violin?
Like the saxophone family, the string family has different sized instruments. The larger the instrument’s size, the lower the range will be on the instrument. The viola is both larger in size and lower and darker sounding than the violin. Think of it as the Lady Gaga, Billie Holiday, or Tina Turner voice range of the string family.
Q. The New Music Connoisseur describes you as “utterly masterful;” Chamber Music Today describes you as having “superb technique;” and Chicago Musical Review states, “Hall’s viola at times seemed to weep, at other times to dance”. What’s your message to an aspiring violist who would want to emulate you?
Ask anybody in the arts and they will encourage you to be as convincing as possible with your artistic intentions and delivery. Often, musicians fall into the trap of trying to be “perfect” with their music making. The problem is there’s no such thing as perfection. We have over 500 different recordings of Bach’s Violin Sonatas. Each of these performers is expected to play all the correct notes and rhythms, yet we also expect each performer to portray to us their unique perspective, phrasing, and dramatic representation of the music they feel at that moment in their life. An audience doesn’t care if you play perfectly if you do not deliver your performance with clear emotional intentions and purposeful delivery. Despite the fact they lived 300 years part form one another, the conviction in my performance of music composed by J.S. Bach, Jessie Montgomery, Stacy Garrop, or Evan Williams must be filled with convincing intentions. More than anything, this is my message to aspiring musicians of every style and background — Have a clear message you want to say to your audience and deliver it with passion.
Q. You reportedly played a role with the Bandung Philharmonic to help create a model for collaboration between the US and Indonesia, the largest Islamic majority country in the world? Briefly describe that model.
From the very beginning of my involvement in founding the Bandung Philharmonic, collaboration was paramount. The newly formed team was comprised of Indonesians and Americans and each person brought special skills, interests, and desires for the orchestra’s ability to engage and motivate our communities. Some examples include:
1. Collaboration – in an artistic and cultural structure.
2. Sharing music – commissioning of Indonesian composers, premiering the music with the Bandung Philharmonic, and then bring the music to the US.
3. Pen Pal programs between CPS students and Indonesian students.
4. The need to highlight how similar we are to each other. Regardless of the variations in our traditions and lifestyles, we are ultimately extremely similar in basic wishes for developing friendships, nurturing family, being seen, finding community, and feeling like we contribute and belong to something bigger than ourselves.
5. Arin Efferin and Robert Nordling invited me to be part of this shared journey. Together, we continued to dream bigger and bigger missions for the orchestra and its community – both locally and internationally.
Q. You’re known to used music to help support women shelters, create libraries in villages in Indonesia, and create pen pal programs between students in Indonesia and public schools on Chicago’s South Side. What’s motivates you?
Quite simply, the desire to empower other people. I firmly believe it is all of our jobs to make the world a better place for the next generation.
Q. Who is the most influential person in your life?
To choose one is challenging, since we are all a composite of the people in our lives, real or imagined. But, without question, my main influences are my parents: Rose Mary (Bebe) Hall and Lawrence Hall. They were both strong self-motivators. Each took great pride in excelling in their jobs, as well as balancing life with strong family ties. My father spent his entire working life at US Steel in Gary. My mother spent most of her career working for GTE – General Telephone. I cannot stress enough the amount of sheer will power and determination they both demonstrated in life. Deeply passionate and always making large plans, they both set a model for dedication that helped me surmount the challenges of physical therapy in the hospital, persevere through the decades of practice on my viola, and embrace the need to connect with people.
Q. What do you like about Hyde Park?
There is so much to love about the Hyde Park. It is a nexus point in US history. Almost all the major events in our city’s history happened on the south side. Music, labor, physics, politics, social movements, etc. I love the people in Hyde Park. You know you’re only a short stroll down the street from having an incredible conversation or meeting a living icon. But for our family, there are a handful of highlights in Hyde Park that make us swoon for our neighborhood.
- Promontory Point: We couldn’t imagine Hyde Park without this outdoor wonderland. So many memories with friends and endless variations in color spectrums tossed back and forth between the lake and the sky.
- The Produce Store: Seriously, a treasure.
– Bookstores, Bookstores, Bookstores! I love them all, yet will always have soft spot for 57th Street Books due to the many times I’ve read stories to my daughters in the store.
- Medici Bakery: Chocolate croissants to die for. I’m salivating while I type this.
– Restaurants like Valois, Rajun Cajun, The Sit Down, and Snail Thai. These family owned hotspots make our heart sing. I must give a special shout out to Marissa at Snail Thai. Marissa has practically become a defacto member of our family by being so personable.
- 57th Street Art Fair and the Hyde Park 4th of July: Community celebration at its best!
We couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in Chicago. Both of our daughters were born in Hyde Park. My family and I cherish living in Hyde Park and we couldn’t imagine a better place to live.
Michael Hall, viola
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