Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thomas Hampson explores the role of the singer as storyteller

On Tuesday night at the Newmark Theater, renowned baritone Thomas Hampson delivered a masterful recitation of American song as part of the acclaimed 'Song of America' program that he has been developing in conjunction with the Library of Congress. This program is an ongoing project that has as one of its goals the launch of a website dedicated to American poets, composers, songwriters, and their songs, and to serve as a jump-off point for research into this topic. After the intermission Hampson spoke at length about his passion for this project, and gave some sense as to the immense scope, and incredible importance, of this undertaking. He spoke of the importance of song as a "dialog of metaphors between one language [words] and another [music]," as well as the unique ability of Americans to portray "American culture in its wide, deep, confusing, entertaining" nature.

The program began with the first song definitely attributed to an American composer, "My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free" by Francis Hopkinson. Stephen C. Foster was next, with a lilting "Open thy Lattice, Love" that gave the feeling as though one was sitting in a log cabin in front of a crackling fire in the youth of our nation, listening to an American troubadour of the highest caliber.

One of the most impressive aspects of the performance, aside from the rich, nuanced and impeccable singing styles Hampson brought, was his ability to tell a story. Whether sending the audience into rip-roaring laughter with Aaron Copland's rendition of "The Dodger," or leaving the audience in humbled solemnity with his repeated impassioned cries of 'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!' at the end of Michael Daugherty's setting of Abraham Lincoln's famous "Letter to Mrs. Bixby," there was never a moment where Hampson's intent was unclear, when his interpretation of the work left anything to be desired by way of emotional import. His amazing ability to bring every tool of the storyteller's craft to his beautiful, intentioned singing left no doubt that he fully believed in the dialog of metaphors about which he spoke. His ability to inform that dialog to such an expert, heartfelt degree in both languages was the truly amazing feat displayed in this concert.

His range of choices was impressive as well. There were difficult, modern atonal compositions that had been composed specifically for him by Michael Tilson Thomas and John Corigliano, whose novelty and complexity provided some of the most gratifying moments of the evening; there was Copland aplenty, Bernstein, Charles Ives, and a fresh rendition of the normally sentimental 'Shenandoah' that seemed to not take itself too seriously while still displaying the deep pride of place inherent in the timeless American classic. Wolfram Rieger, the accompanist, was superb as well, and the repartee between the two was seamless, intimate and engaging.

In talking during the intermission with some friends who had attended Hampson's master class, they spoke of his kindness, of openness, of a giving nature and an easy sense of humor. All of these things and more were readily apparent throughout the evening. The term 'national treasure' is perhaps sometimes used too glibly, but such praise is not too high to be heaped upon one so skilled and dedicated as Thomas Hampson is to preserving, continuing, and enriching the glorious tradition of American song.

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