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.