My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free
Open Thy Lattice, Love
Circus Band; In Flanders Fields
Look Down Fair Moon
Song of the Deathless Voice
The Negro Sings of Rivers
Letter to Mrs. Bixby
God Be In My Heart
Night Wanderers; Nocturne, Op.13
Blue Mountain Ballads
General William Booth Enters Into Heaven
Thomas Hampson (baritone) & Vlad Iftinca (piano)
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 22 January, 2012
Venue: The Charles Engelhard Court, The American Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Celebrating America in song has been a mission for Thomas Hampson since he established a foundation to support his efforts over ten years ago. He has become a self-appointed emissary of the American art-song, touring the country from “sea to shining sea”, presenting concerts and lectures, and generating educational programs devoted to revitalizing this source of both vocal art and historical perspective. In the newly-renovated American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hampson presented a survey of American song, beginning with Francis Hopkinson (who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence), and gliding through works of many well-known and virtually unknown composers who applied their talents to song.
Hampson was in fine voice and, aided by the excellent Vlad Iftinca, did his best not to be daunted by the excessively reverberating acoustics of the Charles Engelhard Court, with its vast rectangular design, intermittent sculpture and high ceiling – an unusual and problematic setting that is unsuitable for the intimacy of a recital. Even if it was difficult to comprehend the text in strong and rapid-fire passages, particularly in the more humorous songs, Hampson still captured the meaning of the words in his characterful readings and his natural manner of imitating folk-like drawl.
As a something of a musicologist, Hampson became a champion of Stephen Foster’s songs, recognizing that they are not merely stylized folk music, but truly artful. He sang with deep commitment Foster’s lovely tale of a sailor longing for home. Aaron Copland’s rendition of the traditional hillbilly song The Dodger was especially delightful given his flair for its countrified manner of expression and homespun humor. The two Ives songs are better known, but Hampson’s intensely personal way of expressing their disparate texts added a measure of charm and sincerity. Ives’s In Flanders Field and Walter Damrosch’s Danny Deever (setting a Kipling poem) are two of several anti-war songs whose subjects parallel military Lieder by Mahler.
Virgil Thomson’s setting of Tiger! Tiger! was a true find, his musical characterization of William Blake’s description of the ferocious jungle creature sending shivers down the spine. Some other buried treasures were revelations. Charles Naginski, represented here by Look Down Fair Moon, was born in Egypt and came to America at the age of eighteen to study at Juilliard, but this promising composer’s life was cut short in a drowning accident. Jean Berger was born in Germany, studied music in Paris, and came to the US in his thirties. His melancholy song about a hobo, Lonely People, was written to a text by Langston Hughes. John Duke’s setting of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory is one of Duke’s more than 250 songs, some of which have been featured in surveys of American vocal music. Sidney Homer, an uncle and supporter of Samuel Barber, wrote numerous songs on American lore, including Casey At the Bat, as well as setting texts by American jazz poets such as Vachel Lindsay’s General William Booth Enters Into Heaven performed here by Hampson. African-American pianist and composer Margaret Bonds set another text by Hughes, the soulful and deeply expressive The Negro Sings of Rivers.
Other composers, such as Arthur Farwell, Virgil Thomson and Samuel Barber were represented by some of their best contributions to the genre. Novelist and inveterate traveler Paul Bowles wrote numerous songs about his wanderings throughout his native land. The four songs that comprise his Blue Mountain Ballads run the gamut from the beautifully descriptive and lyrically charming ‘Heavenly Grass’ and the sentimental ‘Cabin’ to the cracker-barrel wit of ‘Lonesome Man’ and the jazzy strains of ‘Sugar in the Cane’. Elinor Remick Warren and Michael Daugherty (the latter the only living composer represented in Hampson’s program) have written numerous works focusing on aspects of American life and history.
This array of songs on diverse subjects that connect to the heart of the American experience typify Hampson’s “Song of America” project. His enthusiasm for this music and his charm and wit made this recital a highlight of the season. He offered as an encore the ever-popular traditional ballad, O Shenandoah, sung with deep feeling.