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Thomas Hampson Brings Panache, Puzzlement to Tanglewood Recital


Thomas Hampson, American baritone, sang a recital of American “art songs” in Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall Wednesday evening, July 22nd to a large audience of enthusiastic listeners. His program ranged widely: his opening song, by Francis Hopkinson and delightfully Handelian in style, is thought to be the first secular song composed by a native-born America (1759), and on the recital’s first half he surveyed such diverse composers as Stephen Foster, Arthur Farwell, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. The recital’s second half was devoted entirely to a generous sampling of songs by the great American visionary composer/philosopher Charles Ives. Mr. Hampson’s recital partner was the remarkable pianist Craig Rutenberg, a keyboardist of compelling intellectual depth and seemingly limitless technique.

Mr. Hampson, on a quest to establish this repertoire as worthy of comparison to established European lieder of the same generation, has brought this recital to several audiences across the nation this summer. He has also made his performances available to his audience patrons by electronic download, and he has made a self-produced a CD of this repertoire entitled Wondrous Free —Songs of America II available from Thomas Hampson Media.

That such an artist of Mr. Hampson’s considerable gifts of voice and interpretation should become so strong an advocate for the promulgation of American art song is admirable, to say the least. I would be hard-pressed to think of another vocalist so well matched to this cause, though the extraordinary singing of the late Jan DeGaetani echoes happily in my musical memory. This is why I’m a bit uncomfortable to report that all was not as it should have been through the evening.

This recital offered great promise to be a highlight of this year’s Tanglewood season, and it was with that promise in mind that led me to plan to attend from the day it was announced. In a large part Mr. Hampson “delivered,” but there were too many small but disconcerting slips of judgment and memory which, in sum, prevented this recital from completely achieving the lofty heights it promised.

Much DID work, of course. Mr. Hampson’s instrument is a wonder. It has a huge span of range and volume, and he applied these twin assets cannily and effectively throughout the evening. His unveiling of several small masterworks is noteworthy and important: Edward MacDowell’s impressive The Sea, with text by William Dean Howells, recalls Shakespeare’s The Tempest in its referring to a shipwreck lying in a coral bed on the bottom of the sea, the depth of the ocean beautifully painted in the deep notes plumbed by the pianist’s left hand. Arthur Farwell’s Song of the Deathless Voice, in Hampson’s soulful and powerful interpretation, emerged as a compelling dirge for an entire race of Native Americans, as the text three times quotes in Omaha Indian language a dying warrior’s “joyful” cry as he falls to earth in battle. It was a shattering depiction, beautifully composed and definitively sung.

Speaking of definitively sung, Hampson’s advocacy of a late-written song by Leonard Bernstein, To What You Said, in the notes from an insert to EMI Classics CD To The Soul Thomas Hampson sings the poetry of Walt Whitman, is wholly admirable and justified. (Anyone who harbors a love of Walt Whitman’s verse and American song should own this disk.)

Bernstein’s setting (is) of an unpublished Whitman fragment – what may have been a private musing or an unsent letter to Ann Gilchrist.* With its combination of delicacy and militarism the song is at once an assertion of freedom and responsibilitya statement express itself in any infinite number of couplings – man to man, wife to husband, friend to friend, individual to society, and poet to democracy. The text appealed to Bernstein, we are told, because he read it as a ‘repressed poem on a repressed subject.’ With his own psychological contraries, unabashed romanticism, his political  activism and deep humanitarianism, as well as his quest for a unique native idiom that blended American jazz and European melody, Bernstein found Whitman a kindred spirit.

Thomas Hampson & Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, 1997

*Ann Gilchrist was a British literary critic and passionate admirer of Walt Whitman. The two engaged in lengthy correspondence, and in 1871 Ms. Gilchrist, claiming to “hear the voice of my mate…” while she read Leaves of Grass, proposed marriage to the poet, which he, not surprisingly, gently declined.

This sublime song, perhaps Bernstein’s most personal and heartfelt vocal solo, received a performance equal to its content, a highlight of the evening.

After intermission, Mr. Hampson returned, score in hand, for a traversal of songs by Charles Ives, and it was here that some cracks began to appear. Actually, earlier in the recital Hampson occasionally displayed a small but annoying affectationhe occasionally ran his words together, perhaps in an attempt to underscore a legato vocal line. The unfortunate result each time was to make the text indecipherable, and worse, this affect created a brief sense of artificiality, of a technique applied for effect at the expense of musical honesty. This is a quibble, I’ll admit, but not something I’d have expected from Mr. Hampson. In any case, even with the Ives music in his hand, Mr. Hampson strayed more often than he should have from the printed notes and texts Ives wrote. This was surprising and a bit disconcerting. It created the impression that Mr. Hampson had not prepared these songs to the level of professionalism he had brought to the music on his recital’s first half. Ives’ transcendence, therefore, suffered, and that is a cardinal sin when presenting these remarkable songs.

Much was wonderful, though: Circus Band, sung from an excited youth’s perspective, was amusing and charming; Tom Sails Away was appropriately touching, then devastating; Sunrise, with its iridescent violin solo played sensitively, flawlessly, and very movingly by BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, made a very memorable impression. The last programmed song was The Housatonic at Stockbridge, in which Hampson and Rutenberg together beautifully achieved the impressionistic haze of the song’s beginning describing, in Robert Underwood Johnson’s very moving poetry, the recollection that Ives and his wife Harmony remembered walking along the banks of the river. As the verse moves forward, so does the flow of the river and the music depicting it. It becomes more and more turbulent, thensuddenlycalm, and the song, somewhat abruptly, ends, with images and musical notes reverberating in mind and ear. Here, Hampson at last seemed secure, and he gave this wonderful song one of his recital’s finest performances.

The cheering audience insisted on encores, and encores it received. Mr. Hampson, finally off book, offered Ives’ Memories from memory, and to good effect. He then offered a very moving arrangement by Roger Ames of three verses of Shenandoah, the epic folk song which tells not only of a river, but of the longing for the beautiful daughter of Shenandoah, a Native American chieftain. Finally, after much encouragement, he sang The Boatman’s Dance, another of the Copland Early American Songs (he had sung The Dodger earlier) and here achieved the height of involvement with his material we all had hoped for from the beginning. Hampson’s open-throated and generous fortissimi effortlessly soared out of Ozawa hall and are probably still ringing around Lake Mahkeenac. But it was his rapt mezza-voce pianissimo at the song’s end, floating down the stagefront and through the consciousness of the audience that brought a welcome sense of calm and contentment at the end of a long and rewarding evening.

And, wasn’t this evening, well, appropriate: a recital of American song sung by an accomplished American vocal artist in the cradle of American music making, a place of music created by a maestro devoted to commissioning and performing American music, ending with the music of an esteemed American composer who had spent many years on this very spot educating, enlightening and inspiring composition students for many celebrated years. The musical and intellectual connections to time and place were powerful this night, indeed.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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