28 Nov 2005
Thomas Hampson in Recital
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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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 www.hampsong.com 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 www.recmusic.org 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.