Thomas Hampson in Portsmouth

Last evening, January 7, 2009, we went to the movies to see Thomas Hampton and Renée Fleming in the encore presentation HD broadcast of the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet in a stunning tour de force by both singers.

At intermission we reminisced about seeing baritone Thomas Hampson live in Portsmouth on September 7, 2008 at Willett Hall. The occasion was the opening program of the 70th season of Portsmouth Community Concerts, Inc. Hampson's appearance continues a long tradition of bringing some of America's finest classical singers here: Jerome Hines and Roberta Peters in the 1960's; later Marilyn Horne and Robert Merrill; more recently Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw and Denyce Graves.

There is no need for me to repeat the glowing review by Lee Teply in the Virginian-Pilot. Instead, we will share with you Steve's impressions written to a friend by email and I will add a discography for readers who want to hear more Hampson.

Saturday night Thomas Hampson, along with Vlad Iftinca, presented a recital in our area. It was the second time we've had the pleasure of hearing Hampson sing live. The first was in 1995 at Ogden Hall for Hampton Arts when he was accompanied by Craig Rutenberg. That was a traditional, formal recital with comments coming only at the end.

This time he was looser and friendlier and became more so as the evening progressed. He was fresh from New York where earlier in the week he had appeared at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Philharmonic and at the Metropolitan Opera Gala. After this recital he was off to California for a golfing vacation. He gave us two interludes of "Herr Professor Hampson" as his colleagues jokingly refer to him when he goes into his lecturing mode. They were so well presented, especially the second, that I wouldn't have minded a couple more. He sang four sets of songs, one German and three American. He then proceeded to grace us with 3 encores! Twice he milked us for one more, teasing us by leaving the stage and then checking to see if we wanted him back. The last was Di Provenza from La Traviata, the one that Manola Dargis panned in her Met Gala review, earlier in the week. No fault was found here! He even gave a solo bow to Vlad, who seems so sensitive and mentally, emotionally and physically concentrated on the music, even mouthing the text at times. A musician friend was impressed that even though the lid was completely open, Vlad's piano never covered Hampson.

I've always loved Hampson but this has got to be the most satisfying art song recital ever. John and I are still aglow! The recital started shortly after 8 and lasted, with intermission and announcements until nearly 10:30!

Songs by Baritone Thomas Hampson on Compact Disc

This discography will be directly related to the selections he sang in his September 7, 2008 recital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Before I get to the CD's I want to mention the 1997 PBS Great Performances I Hear America Singing with spoken introductions by Hampson, who sings several selections. Hampson hosts this celebration of America's rich tradition of concert song, with friends including Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Dawn Upshaw, Harolyn Blackwell and Jerry Hadley with pianists John Browning and Craig Rutenberg. Mollie Mason on guitar and Jay Unger on harmonica and violin are also featured. You can find this I Hear America Singing VHS tape on

In this recital the first set featured songs by Schubert and Liszt that were somber in mood: An die Leier is on the Hyperion Schubert Edition #14 CDJ 33014. Hampson sings with Graham Johnson on piano (17 songs). I could not find a Hampson recording of the two selections from Schubert's Schwanengesang D957 set: Das Fischermädchen and his powerfully performed Der Doppelgänger. Two of three Liszt songs are on Hampson's Romantic Songs: Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt EMI Classics D 103099: Im Rhein im schönen Strome S. 272 and Es rauschen die Winde S. 294. I did not find a recording of the charming Die Drei Zigeuner S. 320.

The rest of the evening was devoted to American song. Hampson has complete CDs devoted to songs by many of the individual composers whose works he sang for us that early September night. Ah, May the Red Rose Live Alway (1850) is on American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster, Angel D 100285. Harry T. Burleigh's Ethiopia Saluting the Colors is on To the Soul: Thomas Hampson sings the poetry of Walt Whitman EMI CDC 7243 555028 27 (26 selections). With a frightening power in the piano and a stern visage, Hampson told the story of a dusky woman forced into slavery.

In Flanders Fields can be found on Charles Ives American Journey CD #09026-63703-2 in arrangements for orchestra by David Del Tredici with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony. A conventional song of praise, God Be in My Heart by Elinor Remick Warren came next. Her song We Two is sung by Hampson on his Song of America: Music from the Library of Congress EMI Angel 0946 34 164528. Ferocity was in Tiger! Tiger! by Virgil Thomson but I did not find a recording by him. In Blake's poem we learn that the hand that made the tiger also formed the lamb.

After an enlightening talk about the marriage of words and music in art song he sang the set Blue Mountain Ballads by Paul Bowles, my personal favorite of the evening. Bowles is well known for his novels and short stories that were written later in his career. He was the composer of these four songs of sassy charm set to a text by a young, confident Tennessee Williams. Two gay, creative American men out to conquer the art world of New York City with vivacious quirky tunes and texts of subtle, complex emotions all captured wonderfully well by Hampson. He has not recorded the set though Samuel Ramey and others have. You will find Hampson singing one selection, Sugar in the Cane on the VHS I Hear America Singing.

Next he sang African-American composer William Grant Still's Grief. This requiem-like song was in great contrast to Bowles and made a dramatic impact. On an Omaha Indian text, The Old Man's Love Song, arranged by Arthur Farwell, captures a whole dimension of Native American music. I found no recording of either song. Just as American is General Booth enters into Heaven, a poem by Vachel Lindsay about the bellowing, Bible-thumping founder of the Salvation Army. The setting by Sidney Homer is a barnstorming send-up which used all of Hampson's skill at communicating with gestures, involving the whole body, eyes and facial expression by turn. This can be found on the I Hear America Singing tape. Ives's setting of the same poem is on An American Journey CD which also has Memories: A - Very Pleasant, B - Rather Sad, his first encore piece.

Hampson's Shenandoah could melt the coldest heart (Song of America CD). It was immediately followed by Aaron Copland's The Boatman's Dance which can be found on Long Time Ago. On Old American Songs by Aaron Copland, Teldec D 170246, Dawn Upshaw sings his Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson, all with chamber orchestra!

Next came the complex rhythms of Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine. The third encore was Di Provenza from Verdi' La Traviata. As Lee Teply said in his fine review "The versatility and ease with which Hampson shifted from one thing to the next continued to amaze the enthusiastic audience." We were only mirroring Hampson's own enthusiasm; he earlier told us "I love them passionately, these American songs."

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