Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hampson shines in Lieder and American songs

by Rodney Punt

Like the lead character in the old TV spy show, baritone Thomas Hampson has led three lives, dividing his career between the contrasting emotional states of Germanic angst in Lieder, American optimism in song, and Italian drama in opera. The first two of those lives were on impressive display at his recital presented by the LA Opera last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Resuming a US residency after two decades mostly in Europe, the American-born Hampson is a man on a mission. He is reacquainting local ears with the musical expressions of our peculiar, polyglot American vernacular. In a program of thirteen songs (including two encores), a youthful 54-year-old Hampson, with Romanian pianist Vlad Iftinca (left), made a compelling case for revival of the oft-neglected tradition of American song, reminding us also, in the program’s first half, of his credentials in Lieder.

The Chandler audience was peppered with singers, vocal teachers, and accompanists curious as to the state of the singer’s storied lyric baritone. He has been active of late in Verdi operas that can darken and coarsen a voice, his recent roles in La Traviata and Macbeth employing more than usual vocal power. Would Hampson be able to re-summon his famously creamy tone, seamless legato, and floating head voice in a recital of generally lighter-textured songs?

The answer was an emphatic yes.

Returning to the theater that, he told us, started his career (he was trained in Southern California), Hampson’s vocal apparatus proved remarkably fresh, taking just a couple of songs to open up its customarily burnished-copper timbre. Moreover, Hampson was blissfully free from the vocal mannerisms that mar many a middle-aged singer’s evening of exposed song.

Culling from “the largest shoebox on the planet”, as he described it, Hampson began his American set with Francis Hopkinson’s charming My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free, written in 1759 and presumed to be the first art song made in America. Appropriate for this occasion, it celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. Compare its upbeat words “…the little birds that fly with careless ease from tree to tree were but as blest as I” with almost any passage from a German Lied and you will at an instant grasp the essential difference in character between two peoples and their song traditions.

Hampson’s wide-ranging musical journey took us through many a regional stop. He reminded the audience in his introduction that our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, does not imply the homogenization of our people. From the romantic sentimental tradition of European-settled America came Stephen Foster’s antebellum seduction, Open they Lattice, Love, Edward MacDowell’s nautical-death lullaby, The Sea, Amy Beach’s impressionistically nostalgic Twilight, and Elinor Remick Warren’s soul-saving God Be in my Heart.

Other ethnic roots were celebrated more profoundly in Henry T. Burleigh’s Walt Whitman--penned and riveting Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, Arthur Farwell’s Omaha Indian warrior crying proudly in Song of the Deathless Voice, and the poignant lament of the William Grant Still-LeRoy Brant song, Grief.

Regional behaviors and their accents were a source of comic bumptiousness in four songs, brought off as only an American of Hampson’s pedigree and showmanship could, ably partnered by a bemused Iftinca. Two were Aaron Copland charmers, The Dodger with its nod to the great American con-man, and The Boatman’s Dance with its loveable lug of a river man. Two Charles Ives’ songs were similarly inspired, the hilariously droll cowboy yarn, Charlie Rutlage, played to the clump-footed hilt by Hampson (it could have inspired the Beatles’ similarly campy Rocky Raccoon), and as encore, the two-part Memories (Very Pleasant, Rather Sad), a hilarious yet sentimental send-up of an innocent at his first opera.

What these songs brought to the audience was something rare in a recital here: the power of personal memory. As Hampson stated, they tell us “what it’s like to be alive, now.” While we can love deeply the beautiful song traditions of other countries, in one form or another we have actually experienced life in our own songs; they stir us to the very depths of our American soul. Two in particular struck me dumb with wonder this evening, Hampson's renditions of the traditional Shenandoah and, as encore, Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer.

The German set on the first half of the program was an intelligently designed survey on the ubiquitous Austro-German poetic theme of lost or idealized love, ranging from settings by Franz Schubert to the post-romantic Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (The specific repertoire is mentioned in my earlier piece on Hampson.)

Settings by German poet Heinrich Heine were included in both the Schubert and Franz Liszt songs, and another poet, Ludwig Rellstab, set elsewhere by Schubert, was represented here in a setting by Liszt. We usually think of Schubert’s line of song succession as flowing through the Romantic traditionalists, Schumann and Brahms. But there is another, equally compelling line through the progressive styles of Franz Liszt and Hugo Wolf, the neglected songs of Liszt in particular worthy of more exploration and performance. These Lieder and those of Korngold and Richard Strauss that followed ably confirmed Hampson’s claim to interpretative preeminence in the Romantic Austro-German tradition. Here, as elsewhere, Hampson was ably partnered by the stylish and idiomatic pianism of Vlad Iftinca.

Sustained applause for their performance was justified. Looking impossibly tall and handsome, well-tailored, and exuding an eager charm, Hampson retired to the Founders Circle entry area after the recital and signed posters, pictures, and CD booklets for well over an hour. Employing all his resources, he works on overtime for a cause he embraces.


Songs are topical; they bloom and pass away like ephemeral wildflowers. In his Johnny Appleseed quest on behalf of American song, Hampson is launching a vast inventory project on his website, Hampsong.com. He has also joined forces with the Library of Congress’ Music Division, representatives of which have accompanied him on tour with an exhibition of musical artifacts that appeared at the Founders Circle area before and after the recital. Among the items displayed was an original manuscript of George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You, which I was able to hold briefly in my grateful hands. When you experience genius this close up, the customary boundary between popular and serious art is no thicker than the plastic micro-cover protecting the Gershwin masterpiece from the unintentional wear of mortal touch.

No comments: