BWW Reviews: Thomas Hampson: An American Hero at Tanglewood
As an opera singer and interpreter of the lied repertoire, American native son Thomas Hampson has reached the pinnacle of accomplishment. However, few vocal performers of our day are as closely identified with American classical music as this renowned artist. On Friday, July 18, with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood under the baton of British conductor Edward Gardner, he demonstrated this affinity with great expertise in his performance of selections from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs.
Despite Copland's urban upbringing, he brilliantly depicted the decidedly non-urban character of the American folk persona in many of his works. This much-loved set of songs is no exception. Originally written for voice and piano and ultimately rescored for voice and orchestra, Songs premiered in stages during the 1950s, and was performed by such vocal luminaries as Peter Pears and William Warfield. Hampson has reemphasized his commitment to Copland's music, and especially this particular work, in his comprehensive list of the individual song texts on his Hampsong Foundation website (http://hampsongfoundation.org/aaron-copland-song-texts/).
From the first to last of the six chosen pieces, which varied from campaign song to ballad, lullaby to minstrel melody, Hampson held the audience in thrall with his vocal ease and agility and deep understanding of Copland's distinctly American style. With grand gestures, canny emphasis on the folk elements of each song with carefully crafted pronunciation, and a plethora of facial expressions that captured the subtleties of the form, he created an atmosphere entirely American in character that only a true devotee of the great composers of our heritage could carry off. Alternately charming and commanding, Hampson acted out the text without overplaying, displayed his virtuosity with the confidence and authority of one who could almost channel the composer, and as if that weren't already deeply satisfying, treated the delighted audience to two captivating encores. In his rendition of this music, which he clearly loves and comprehends fully, he came across as an American musical hero for our time.
The Copland songs were bookended by two orchestral tours de force led by Maestro Gardner, in his BSO debut, replacing Christoph von Dohnányi. With this legendary virtuoso Boston ensemble as his instrument, Gardner made an impressive showing. His background as an opera conductor at world-renowned houses from the UK to New York and Paris served him well in Richard Strauss's technically demanding Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. With operatic flair, Gardner showed an outstanding ability to control the widely varied dynamics, from the subtle opening in the strings to the bombastic portrayals of the title character's outrageous antics in the winds and brass; and his energy and enthusiasm kept the audience rapt until the final "Perhaps it was all a joke after all" ending.
A good conductor should most of all be a great communicator, and in the case of an orchestra of the BSO's greatness, also should be able to guide the ensemble in such a way that the players are free to express their talents to the maximum. In the Strauss, Gardner allowed the individual "star" players, notably the principal French horn and oboist, to display their striking abilities to stunning effect, while allowing for the entire ensemble to support their colleagues' exceptional solo playing with the outstanding team effort for which the BSO is so renowned.
The maestro's rendition of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony was less effective. This work, performed by the BSO since their second year of existence (1882), has become almost an anthem for the orchestra, beloved by and familiar to Boston audiences. Gardner's approach to the Poco Sostenuto introduction to the first movement Vivace was pleasingly lyrical, almost lilting, and the tempo moved along swiftly without feeling hurried. One hoped for a bit more of that lyricism, and also more depth of feeling, in the profoundly moving Allegretto, but it still flowed nicely. However, the Presto third movement felt rushed, and the final Allegro con brio was taken at such a rapid clip that the notes flew by precipitously without properly being heard. There's no question that the BSO's brilliant violin section can play these passages without breaking a sweat. A slightly less rushed tempo would have allowed the audience the luxury of hearing every single note impeccably played in the context of the exquisite whole of Beethoven's masterwork: in other words, to quote a well-worn orchestra players' phrase, "every note a jewel."
Nonetheless, Maestro Gardner gave the overall impression of a remarkably gifted and already accomplished musician who will have much to offer as his career progresses.
Photo credits: Hilary Scott