“Coming to Orchestra Hall from Ford Auditorium was like coming to a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” cracks DSO violist Hart Hollman, recalling when the orchestra permanently moved back into the historic (and then recently restored) venue in 1989.
“My first concert in the hall,” he continues, “hearing that sound…” And then he pauses, not needing to say more. In that moment, Orchestra Hall’s incredible acoustics spoke for themselves. And they still do.
Hart has been a member of the DSO viola section since 1973. He sits stage left, in the closest seat of the front row to the backstage wing, often by himself. From that vantage point, he can see Orchestra Hall’s glowing interior and feel a connection with audience members sitting just feet away. He can also hear the music as it swirls and resonates, just before it charges towards the seats. “It just washes over me,” he says.
And Hart is just as effusive about Orchestra Hall when it comes to one of his favorite non-musical hobbies: photography. It was former concertmaster Gordon Staples that lent Hart a camera several decades ago, and he’s been hooked ever since. Orchestra Hall is one of his favorite subjects, especially its intricate and sometimes underappreciated details.
“I love to narrow it down to a small area,” he says. “It’s the same thing in music. You look at the big picture but also the small picture – you have to be able to see the details.”
For many years the DSO has used Hart’s photography for press, marketing, and other purposes; several of his shots are in Destiny, the new book written by former Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker in honor of the hall’s centennial.
But playing in a world-class orchestra and taking photos of its equally superlative concert hall isn’t enough for Hart. Spotting his large frame and friendly mustached face backstage means you’re in for a lengthy conversation about any matter of topics – maybe music or maybe photography, sure, but hiking, boating, fishing, and sci-fi movies are just as likely. “Here’s one of my mantras,” Hart explains. “Live is not a dress rehearsal. I never want to say ‘boy, I wish I had…’ I want to do it.”
Buckle up for the story of Hart Hollman.
“Well, my parents were both concert pianists and professors,” he begins, describing his childhood in Allentown, Pennsylvania as energetic and full of music. There were two grand pianos in the living room. “But at the age of seven I got sick and tired of the piano,” he says, “so my aunt gave me a three-quarter size violin she had in her attic.” He was a natural, and after becoming concertmaster of his high school orchestra an instructor suggested Hart “get a bigger gun, so to speak” – so he switched to the viola.
Hart attended Muhlenberg College and the Baum School of Art simultaneously and traveled to Philadelphia on the weekends to study with Max Aronoff at the Curtis Institute. Then, on a family vacation to the Midwest, he auditioned at Indiana University. “They said they’d like to give me a full out-of-state scholarship and asked me to start immediately,” Hart remembers. “So my parents dropped me off, then they went back to Allentown and sent me all my clothes in a steamer trunk.”
After graduating, Hart won the principal viola job at the North Carolina Symphony and then joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He was at a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra audition when he heard about another audition at the DSO the following day; almost on a whim he bought a plane ticket and headed to Detroit. The rest, as they say…
Almost immediately after joining the DSO, Hart was invited by principal flute Ervin Monroe to join Monroe’s boat club. Before he knew it Hart was sailing 22-foot, then 30-foot, and then even larger boats on the Detroit River and Lake Saint Clair. Then he was invited to the Race to Mackinac, to which he returned ten times.
Back at the boathouse, a lawyer asked him one day if he’d like to “bag a peak” – meaning climb a 14,000-foot mountain. “After a concert one night we drove to Longs Peak in Colorado,” Hart says. “We got on the trail and did everything wrong. But we made it. From then on we decided to do it the right way – we got the right equipment, we went to climbing school, we added some people to the group. And there are 11 of us now.”
He’s talking about the Over-The-Hill Gang, a group of climbers and hikers that’s gone on annual treks for 43 consecutive years – and counting. They’ve bagged nearly every major peak in the United States and Canada and also climbed the Austrian Alps and the Scottish Highlands. “There are two reasons you can use to not go,” Hart explains. “One: your wife says no. And two: you’re dead.”
So, Hart Hollman: a viola phenom from Allentown, Pennsylvania who went to two colleges at once before nearly-accidentally getting accepted to a third; a fearless optimist who said “what the heck” to joining a boat club, climbing enormous mountain after enormous mountain, and mail-ordering a small fortune of camera equipment from B&H; a cat so thoroughly un-killed by curiosity. Thirty-five minutes into a phone conversation about all of this, Hart reveals that he also studied sleight-of-hand magic, that one of his sons is a sea captain in the Caribbean, and that his oldest daughter is an actress who we’ll soon all see in the upcoming The Matrix 4.
But when told he’s in the running for Most Interesting Man In The World, Hart scoffs. “I just want to try everything that I can,” he says. “Above all I have fun in the orchestra.”
After a description of the remainder of his day’s schedule (“Then yard work, then the Jacuzzi … my Jacuzzi should be tax-deductible!”), Hart describes a special moment with his Over-The-Hill Gang compatriots: “When we have the last meal on our hiking trips, we’ll sit around the table and everyone says something they’d rather do, like ‘If I hadn’t been a dentist, I’d like to…’ Everyone always has something else they’d rather do. I don’t.”
“Every year my answer is the same. I want to be on stage making music. Especially making music in Orchestra Hall."
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