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Thomas Hampson Thrills Audience With Program of 19th and 20th Century Songs

Nancy Plum

Some time ago, there was a cartoon in The New Yorker depicting a singer about to sing onstage; when the singer opened his mouth, there was a cathedral inside. Such is the voice of baritone Thomas Hampson, who brought his artistry and richness of sound to McCarter Theatre Sunday afternoon to a capacity crowd, reaffirming that the song recital is far from dead. Mr. Hampson sang four multi-song sets, each exploring a varied palette of text and vocal sonority.

The songs of Hugo Wolf and Franz Liszt date from the mid to late Romantic era, and were certainly a challenging way to begin a recital. With no catchy melodies to cling to, Mr. Hampson presented the seven songs of Wolf and five songs of Liszt with effortless shifts in vocal color and mood. Mr. Hampson began the concert with a voice that came from the depths to match the despairing text, but his voice warmed, as the text turned to hope. The extreme range of dynamics employed by Mr. Hampson is taxing on a voice, but he displayed extraordinary stamina varying the character of each piece through the words, music and his collaborative relationship with accompanist Craig Rutenberg.

The songs of Wolf and Liszt have accompaniments that augment the vocal lines and at times create an additional character. In Wolf's song Der Tambour (The Drummer Boy), the piano provides the percussive nature of the text. The Ned Rorem piece which opened the second half of the concert also provided the piano an opportunity to be an equal partner to the voice, as Mr. Rutenberg and Mr. Hampson displayed exact timing between words and music.

The concert's second half, featuring songs on texts by Walt Whitman as well as American art and folk songs, was a study in simplicity. Although provided, no printed texts were necessary, as Mr. Hampson's precise diction told each story. This diction, combined with vocal effects which further conveyed the texts, relayed words that were harrowing at times, such as in Charles Naginski's "Look Down Fair Moon," with words seemingly depicting war. The centerpiece of this set was William Neidlinger's Memories of Lincoln, in which Mr. Hampson displayed the full force of his voice ringing through the hall.

Recitals are intimate evenings between the artist and the audience, and Mr. Hampson clearly loves to play with his audience. The six American art and folk songs performed to close the concert conveyed a range of American musical idioms, including the blues and the sweeping lines of the folk tune Shenandoah. In Mr. Hampson's closing number, Aaron Copland's The Boatmen's Dance, he demonstrated the full scope of his showmanship, and one would surely have no trouble hearing him across the Ohio River described in the song. Mr. Hampson offered two encores to the very appreciative audience: the American tune Long Time Ago and an arrangement of Erie Canal by contemporary American composer Roger Ames.

Song recitals can be tough on everybody – the singer must maintain artistry and composure for an entire program with no ensemble to fall back on, and the audience must maintain interest in one instrument performing for up to two hours. With such a varied program as presented on Sunday, and with even more varied an interpretive style, Mr. Hampson had no trouble delighting the McCarter audience with a program rich in poetry and music.

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