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Thomas Hampson (Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
28 Nov 2005

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Monday evening, November 21, 2005, I was fortunate enough to attend a benefit recital given by Thomas Hampson in the Fox Theater in Spokane, Washington.

Hampson, whose roots are in eastern Washington, was donating his time to benefit the renovation of the theater, an art-deco palace with magnificent acoustics that recently escaped demolition when acquired by the Spokane Symphony. Since vocal recitals by international stars are rare in my own city of Seattle, I decided to make the trip across the state to hear this one, and it was well worth the trip.

Not until shortly before I left the hotel for the theater did it occur to me to check Hampson’s extensive web site for the program, and I ultimately wished that I had done so much earlier. Hampson had chosen to present a selection of Schumann lieder with which I was not familiar, a set of Mahler lieder related to “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” texts, and eight American art songs, most of which I knew or had heard. But the printed program supplied nothing beyond the song titles, composers, and poets, and the singer’s biography. This lack was partially made up as Hampson talked to the audience at some length between the sets of songs, summarizing the texts of the German songs (and referring the audience to his web site for full texts—which I did find, although not the translations, having to follow his link to for those).

Despite using his voice for all this talking (he began by using a microphone, but as the recital continued he stopped bothering to walk over to it and just spoke to the audience), his singing voice held up well. He opened with “Lust der Sturmnacht”, followed by three settings of German texts after slightly disconcerting Danish poems by Hans Christian Anderson. Hampson presented these with an expressive range of vocal color, from his full operatic sound in the martial “Der Soldat” to intimate stillness at the end of “Der Spielmann”. Impressed as I was by Hampson’s singing, I found myself even more astonished by the accompanist’s ability to make incredible sound in the postlude to “Muttertraum” on the Kawai grand. It was clear that this was no ordinary accompanist, and indeed at the break between the Schumann and Mahler songs, Hampson apologized for having also failed to supply the bio of his accompanist for the program. He introduced Wolfram Rieger, originally from Munich and now teaching in Berlin, with whom he has collaborated for eleven years, and who has also collaborated with Brigitte Fassbaender and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, among others.

The juxtaposition of happiness with loss that had pervaded the Schumann song texts continued in the Mahler set. “Ablösung im Sommer” led the set, taken at a quick tempo. Hampson’s diction and involvement with the song were fine, although I do have to say that the spots where the singer imitates the sound of the cuckoo is more effective in the soprano of, say, Lucia Popp. I would find it hard to imagine a more heartfelt and effective performance of “Ging’ heut Morgen über’s Feld” than the one that followed. In his introduction to this set, he had described how the songs of Mahler had resonated for him from his earliest experience with them as a young singer, and “have guided me through many times since”. In singing this song he used a remarkable range of facial expression and vocal color to evoke first the joy of the external world and eventually the intense grief at the realization that the singer’s emotional landscape will never match that of the beautiful spring day. This song was followed by “Aus! Aus!” and “Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz’ “, (the latter introduced by Hampson as “one of the most beautiful songs Mahler wrote“), echoing the dark attitude toward war of Schumann’s “Der Soldat”.

Without intermission, Hampson then took a sip from a mug that he had stashed behind the piano, and invited the audience to stand up and turn around once to warm up, as the theater’s noisy heating system had been turned off during the performance (something that will presumably be fixed by the renovation). He then spoke of how he had begun his 15-20 year-long study of American art songs searching for the American Schubert or Mahler, only to decide it was a waste of time to take that approach. Instead he sees this song literature as a forum in which Americans can look at ourselves, examining what it has been to become “America”. In his view, the “quiet cultured thinking” of America’s philosophers and poets, which these songs capture, is regrettably not as well known as some of the more commercial American products that have pervaded the world. He spoke with warmth and enthusiasm of his current project with the Library of Congress to bring some of the library’s vast collection of American song before the public through his current recital tour. He mentioned Stephen Foster’s project as wanting “to write the Thomas Moore ballads all over again” in an American context. and recounted the work of Arthur Farwell with the Wa-Wan press, which sought to make serious American music available to Americans. Despite the fact that much of this discussion was delivered between songs, without aid of the microphone, Hampson continued to sing beautifully a representative selection of the undeservedly obscure American art songs that he has championed for some years.

The section began with two rather dark texts about shipwreck: Charles Griffes’ “An Old Song Re-sung” and Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea”. After these we heard “Grief”, by the African-American composer William Grant Still, which ends with the exhortation to the weeping angel to “raise your head from your hands” to see “the white dove, Promise.” In this last song in particular, the magic in the accompaniment was matched at the end by that of the pianissimo in the voice. This song was followed by Arthur Farwell’s “The old man’s love song”, based upon an Omaha Indian melody. In John Duke’s setting of “Richard Corey,” Hampson at first returned us to the mundane world in which the title character moved, the accompaniment’s illustration of how he “glittered when he walked” so apt as to prompt giggles from the audience, until the final line when he “put a bullet through his head.” The next song on the program had clear relevance to the occasion, as Hampson evoked his early memories of excitement at hearing music in the very theater in which we sat by singing “Memories”, by Charles Ives. The first section was taken so quickly that at first the singer and accompanist seemed to race against each other, but it had settled into a dead heat by the time Hampson gave a robust performance of the whistled sections, and ended when the accompanist announced “Curtain!”, at which point they shifted to the “rather sad” memories of a bygone era and family member. We returned to the world of ships and the water in the final two programmed songs, first an arrangement by Stephen White of the folk song “Shenandoah” with a majestic accompaniment that was matched by Hampson’s full heroic voice in the first verse and the tenderest of pianissimo in the “I love your daughter” verse, which was sustained through the end of the piece, at which point the accompanist launched immediately into Aaron Copland’s energetic “Boatman’s Dance.” In the master class that Hampson gave the following day, he repudiated critics’ use of the term “vocal coloring”, saying that singers do not have “a crayon box for color”, but rather that if the singer is truly expressing the emotion of the song, the sound quality will vary accordingly. Well, whatever accounts for it, there was throughout this recital a satisfying spectrum of sound, providing sufficient sonic variety and surprise to create in the audience a range of emotion beyond that which was clearly already there in welcoming a favorite son who had achieved international stardom back into the historic theater where he had first been inspired by live classical music performed by the Spokane Symphony.

Prolonged standing applause followed the conclusion of the Copland, and there were several encores. In the first, Hampson invited the audience to sing along, and when we realized he was singing Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” many of us did join as he conducted us, but we gradually dropped out, as most of us acknowledged it was in fact Hampson we had all paid to hear, and by the second verse it was likely that no one knew the words anyway. His second encore was given in response to a request, “Roses of Picardy”, by Haydn Wood. The third encore, “Don’t Fence Me In,” was a tip of the hat to another local celebrity, Bing Crosby, and Hampson’s personality, never retiring, opened up still further with an appropriate cowboy accent and walk. In the final encore, Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You”, apparently dedicated to the audience as representative of a treasured community in which this international star has his roots and sees the values expressed in American song, it began to be evident that the animated talking in the underheated auditorium was starting to take its toll on his lowest notes, and this time he allowed the stage hand to continue to raise the hand-painted original fire curtain that had served as backdrop, as he and Wolfram Rieger bid us good night and retired behind it.

Barbara Miller

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