Hampson is an all-American

Thomas Hampson drew strong applause for his Tanglewood performance. Thomas Hampson drew strong applause for his Tanglewood performance.
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2009

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LENOX - Thomas Hampson, America’s baritone, brought his latest tribute to American song - of the classical variety - to Ozawa Hall on Wednesday and triumphed. He triumphed over entropy. (How do you keep a long career alive? Here’s one way.) He triumphed over those who say no one has the musicianship, chiaroscuro, or charisma to keep the song recital alive. (He certainly does.) And he triumphed, finally, despite the fact that American art songs are, with a few exceptions, rather dull.

A case can be made that America’s real “art songs’’ are by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Strayhorn and Ellington, Kern, Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and the anonymous creators of Spirituals (black and white), the blues, and folk songs of the prairie, the rivers, railroads, and canals. In this writer’s opinion, they have more emotional depth and range - and tell more of the country’s story - than Foster, Copland, Ives, Beach, and others, generally Europhile composers writing for the upper middle class parlor.

The point seemed to be underlined by the last two pieces on the program, sung as encores: “Shenandoah,’’ and “The Boatman’s Dance,’’ Copland’s arrangement of an old minstrel song for the first set of his “Old American Songs.’’ These were the most moving of all, and Hampson sang them in an honest, open-throated, swaggering, style, with delicate half-voice at times, and in a frank, unfussy American accent. The audience was quietly mmmm-ing and hanging on every syllable.

But Hampson - whose new “Song of America’’ project was launched this summer in collaboration with the Library of Congress, with website and CD - is an explorer, and the program included some pleasant discoveries. The first half was a highly personal assortment of mostly little-known songs by 11 composers (one each). These were led off by “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,’’ a charming piece written in 1759 by a young Francis Hopkinson of Philadelphia, a gifted amateur musician who became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (The song, lightly ornamented and owing something to Thomas Arne, is billed as “the first song written by an ‘American.’ ’’ Which only begs the question, what about the unwritten ones?)

Other powerful songs were Arthur Farwell’s “Song of the Deathless Voice,’’ the magnificent funeral song of an Omaha warrior, and one of Leonard Bernstein’s better songs in a serious vein, “To What You Said,’’ to Whitman’s confession of his love for men.

The second half was a selection of 11 songs by Charles Ives, arranged by Hampson, again somewhat artificially, in stages to create a chronicle of Ives’s life (childhood, youth, etc.) Hampson sang from the score. This heavy load of Ives seemed to have been chosen specifically for Tanglewood, where Ives is considered almost a native son and the “Housatonic at Stockbridge’’ is just down the road. That song, with its evocation of Zen-like serenity troubled by Yankee purposefulness, was beautifully sung, with Hampson’s sensitive accompanist Craig Rutenberg co-responsible.

Malcolm Lowe, the Boston Symphony’s concertmaster, played the violin obbligato in “Sunrise,’’ which Hampson sang with many lovely half-tints. In other songs, he sang with a barking roughness that overwhelmed the playful naivete of the texts.

Still, Hampson is a prince among musicians, a commanding presence, with a remarkable, flexible instrument, and lots of virile tone. He keeps on discovering new and worthy music. He deserves all the applause he got, and there was a lot of it.

A PROGRAM OF AMERICAN SONG Thomas Hampson, baritone

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Wednesday

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