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For his October 11 recital in the A. J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh's BTI Center, whose intimacy and ambiance he warmly praised in comments near the end of the evening, Thomas Hampson, accompanied by his collaborative pianist Craig Rutenberg, strode onto the stage in his signature grey knee-length Edwardian tux coat. As an opener, he launched into Ludwig van Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte , Op. 98, considered by many to be the first song cycle ever composed, and whose seven numbers he sang without breaks between them, other than the tiny one caused by inappropriate applause after the first.
This was followed by a group of five songs by Gustav Mahler from Des Knaben Wunderhorn to complete the first half. After the intermission, the singer offered a set of five songs to texts by Walt Whitman by five different composers, constituting a cross section of the familiar and the forgotten or unknown. They were Ned Rorem's "As Adam Early in the Morning," Charles Naginski's "Look Down Fair Moon," Henry T. Burleigh's "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," William Neidlinger's "Memories of Lincoln," and Leonard Bernstein's "To What You Said."
Hampson followed this with a set of six "American Art & Folk Song[s]" as the heading in the printed insert that contained all the texts and translations declared. [The artist's bio is in the NC Symphony's fall season brochure.] These were Edward MacDowell's "The Sea," William Grant Still's "Grief," John Jacob Niles' "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "The Nightingale" arranged by Clifford Shaw, "Shenandoah" arranged by Stephen White, and "The Boatman's Dance" arranged by Aaron Copland. There was a memory lapse in the final number, with a stanza left unsung, and curiously, there was an extraneous song text in the insert that was neither listed in the program nor sung: Paul Hindemith's setting of Whitman's "Sing on There in the Swamp," which it would have been nice to hear to make the recital a complete double dozen.
The program itself was thus also signature Hampson, featuring works that he has championed, presented around the world, and for the most part recorded.* He presented them all in his signature style with clear, crisp, impeccable diction, sensible, logical phrasing, astonishing volume and breath control, and marvelous facial expression and convincing dramatic interpretation, all of it natural and none in the least hackneyed in spite of the numerous times he must have sung the works. Rutenberg provided sensitive collaboration, demonstrating a fine understanding and touch with appropriate differentiations in volume throughout the evening, giving audible evidence of why he deserves his reputation as one of the finest collaborative pianists performing in America today.
The audience was appropriately attentive and enraptured and gave occasional applause, hesitatingly for the breaking of the spell and the grouping, for particularly fine renditions of some individual numbers in the second half. It was quickly on its collective feet at the conclusion bringing the duo back to the stage for numerous bows and persuading them to offer a total of three encores. The first was Copland's arrangement of "Long Time Ago," the second, the same composer's arrangement of "The Erie Canal," and the third Paul Bowles' "Sugar in the Cane," No. 4 in his Blue Mountain Ballads cycle to texts by Tennessee Williams. Between these final two numbers, Hampson spoke at some length to the sizable though not full-house audience about the current crisis in arts funding and the importance of the arts, and of song in particular, to a civilization, for which they at the same time are the soul and come from the soul of the people. He spoke of some of the features that distinguish American songs from their European counterparts and encouraged attendees to be sure to teach them to their children so that they are preserved through succeeding generations. He was preaching to the choir, of course; why else would we all have been there? But this facet of devotion and proselytizing are also signature Hampson, and this talk confirmed his reputation as a personable performer who connects with his listeners as well as with his repertoire - qualities that have placed him among today's quintessential recitalists. While his career and his repertoire have both been much broader than what he presented us this evening, it was nonetheless a quintessential Hampson recital.