Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 48
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
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Hampson Takes Audience on a Journey Through American History in Song

Nancy Plum

American baritone Thomas Hampson has more than made his mark on the opera and symphonic vocal stages, and for the past several years he has chosen to also focus attention on what may seem the simplest of art forms — the solo song. Mr. Hampson and accompanist Craig Rutenberg have been traveling throughout the United States and abroad spreading the gospel of American song literature. With the support of the Library of Congress, these two well-established artists are presenting song recitals, including newly commissioned works, to reach as many people across the United States as possible. Last Tuesday’s performance in the Mathews Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center was presented at reasonable ticket costs to enable individuals from all walks, but especially students, to attend. The full house at McCarter was not only treated to one of the great voices of this time period but also had the opportunity to venture into Mr. Hampson’s commitment to the connection between music and poetry and its role in defining American culture.

As Mr. Hampson explained from the McCarter stage, The Song of America Project recognizes American song as a dialog of poetry and music, and that one metaphor from a single song can enlighten and enrich an individual’s life. Through this ongoing Project, Mr. Hampson has looked at American culture through poets and composers in 10 to 15-year increments, exploring “What is it like to be alive?” in a particular time period, and “What is it to be a creative spirit in America?” Mr. Hampson cited song as a commentary on culture, and commentary as a mirror of who we are, and has designed the recital series so that “everyone can enjoy this literature, and everyone can find their story inside the American story.”

Tuesday night’s performance was broken into four sets of songs, the opening one of which was from the lighter repertoire, representing small town America. These six songs served both to enable the audience to settle into the recital and give Mr. Hampson a chance to warm up vocally. The back of the McCarter stage was brought significantly far forward, creating an intimate atmosphere in which Mr. Hampson might be telling a series of stories to his friends over coffee and cigars. Mr. Hampson sang to the acoustic of the hall well, not overwhelming the audience with a solid baritone voice which can certainly reach to the far corners of any opera house. All of the songs on the program were in English, and although his diction was impeccable, Mr. Hampson provided the text sheets, thereby emphasizing how important it was that the audience fully understand the words.

In this opening set, Mr. Hampson demonstrated the ability to play with the text to tease the audience, especially in Stephen Foster’s “Open Thy Lattice, Love.” The two songs by Aaron Copland, who certainly represented well the American landscape in music, were humorous commentaries on American life, and Mr. Hampson showed especially good control of his voice in “The Dodger,” and was able to well portray the characters of small town America in the “Circus Band” of Charles Ives.

The second set, songs by composers living through much of the 20th century, focused on the lament of aggression and the horrors of war, beginning with Ives’ setting of the immortal World War I text “In Flanders Fields.” Mr. Rutenberg’s percussive and dissonant piano accompaniment changed the mood of the concert immediately, and Mr. Hampson focused on the lyrical and intense poetry of these six songs. The most moving in both text and impact was Michael Daugherty’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby,” a setting of words by Abraham Lincoln to a mother of five sons killed in the Civil War. An underpinning of the passion chorale “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” wove through the very simple and plain, yet effective arrangement.

The third set was a more pensive collection of songs, showing Mr. Hampson’s regal presence onstage and demonstrating some very sensitive endings to contemplative texts. Paul Bowles’ set of “Blue Mountain Ballads” gave Mr. Hampson the chance to show how facial expressions can truly reflect the stories of song. The last set focused on individuals from legend and history, demonstrating narration from both singer and pianist, including vocal “twang” and stylistic singing from Mr. Hampson to reflect the characters of the songs.

The Song of America Project has been traveling around the country for several years as Mr. Hampson and Mr. Rutenberg refine their choices of literature and delve into lesser known corners of the song genre. There were a few women composers represented in Tuesday’s program, suggesting another “corner” which hopefully Mr. Hampson and Mr. Rutenberg will explore in later recitals of this series. This is a slick and polished traveling recital series, with an extensive website exploring many aspects of American song. The possibilities of The American Song Project give area audiences a great deal to hope for in return visits from Mr. Hampson and Mr. Rutenberg down the road.

More information about The Song of America Project can be found at

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