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Music review: Thomas Hampson at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

October 4, 2009 |  3:13 pm

Hampson3 American baritone Thomas Hampson is singing of a “dusky woman,” with a “woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet.” That woman is not the usual Romantic figure extolled in lieder recitals, and that’s Hampson’s point.

The woman is a slave, immortalized in a poem by Walt Whitman, in a song by the now utterly forgotten American composer, Henry T. Burleigh.

She, Burleigh and a host of other obscure American composers are part of America’s forgotten heritage. Hampson’s mission of late has been to revive it through his touring “Song of America Project,” created in collaboration with the Library of Congress.

Hampson brought the program, with Romanian pianist Vlad Iftinca, to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday. The recital was presented by the Los Angeles Opera. (It’s scheduled to be repeated Friday in Santa Barbara, where Hampson won the Lotte Lehmann Award in 1978.)

The recital was the city’s other major music event on Saturday. The competition was Gustavo Dudamel conducting his first concert as the 11th music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at a free, packed-to-the-brim, fireworks finale across town at the Hollywood Bowl.

Hampson joked about the competition during encore time. “I want to express my sympathy,” he told his large, appreciative audience. “You’re the ones who couldn’t get a ticket to Dudamel.”

Nobody seemed disappointed.

Hampson1 At 54, Hampson’s voice retains its clarion power, burnished tone and pellucid clarity. There was not a single blur or drop of discoloring pigment. It was quite amazing.

He sang with a wide dynamic range, including caressing pianissimos, excursions into flexible, flute-like head voice, and bursts of symphonic color at peak moments. This was an artist fully in control of a remarkable instrument. 

Hampson was more a master of line than an interpreter of text, however, achieving his seamless delivery at some expense of consonants, which often sent listeners to the texts even with songs in English.
He made each of the American pieces fully realized art songs, which may have added more weight than some of them could bare. Yes, Stephen Foster’s “Open Thy Lattice, Love” was sensitively sung. But it was hard to hear it as a popular song of its day.

Similarly, Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea,” Arthur Farwell’s “Song of the Deathless Voice,” and Elinor  Remick Warren’s “God Be in My Heart” may have more historical than musical interest.  

Still, Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson’s “My days have been so wondrous free,” reportedly the first American art song, composed in 1759, was a gem of a discovery. As was Burleigh’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.” Ives’ “Charlie Rutlage,” which is more of a recital staple now than a rarity, was entertainingly sung.

Of course, there was also familiar lieder fare during the first half of the program, devoted to German repertory. Hampson sang three works each by Schubert and Liszt, four by Strauss, and “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt,” which was Hampson’s calling card to Los Angeles early in his career. 

Here, Hampson revealed his strengths at full power, making Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” especially eerie and chilling.

Throughout, Iftinca proved a sympathetic, if self-effacing collaborator.

Hampson sang three encores, including songs by Foster and Ives. He sang no arias. “If I don’t sing opera now,” he said, “somebody might invite me to sing opera here in the future.” Lots of fans are waiting.

-- Chris Pasles

Photos:  Thomas Hampson with pianist Vlad Iftinca at the Chandler. Credit: Robert Millard