“Mad About Music” on New York’s WNYC-FM 93.9
Kaplan World acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson on today’s edition of ‘Mad About Music’.
Kaplan: His career as one of our foremost baritones is booming, whether in sophisticated lieder recitals in Vienna or in opera here in New York as he did last night at the Met. Thomas Hampson, welcome to ‘Mad About Music’.
Hampson: Great to see you. Thanks for the invitation.
Kaplan: You know, it must be extraordinary to sing such a gorgeous opera on the stage of the Met, but I sometimes wonder whether baritones wish that Wagner had written more of the great heroic roles for them instead of for tenors.
Hampson: Yes. Personally, yes. And you could also answer that question by saying if there was ever a time in my life where I wished I were a tenor, it would be these fantastic characters and roles that Wagner wrote.
Kaplan: Now, do you think it’s more difficult to be a tenor?
Hampson: Well, I think that there is something we need to recognize in both the soprano and the tenor voices. They are extraordinary natural phenomena. The tenor and the soprano voices are – for something funny, you can chuckle in your cars if you are listening to this – it’s a freak of nature. There is something quite extraordinary that gives us these voices, and a tenor practically in any Fach, but especially a heldentenor or a dramatic tenor, this requires a vocalism and a vocal, natural vocal ability, that is really quite difficult to hone and train and make dependable.
Kaplan: Well, of course, there’s another reason to be envious of tenors and that’s those big multi-million dollar fees that the three tenors get when they stand in the arena.
Hampson: Don’t confuse me. I’m not envious of tenors.
Kaplan: Would you be, for example
Hampson: Oh, the three baritones in Madison Square Garden ? I don’t see that in my future.
Kaplan: Well, if somehow you had to do that, who would be some of the other baritones you might ask to join you for that adventure?
Hampson: Gil, we’re not going down that road! It’s not going to happen!
Kaplan: All right, we’ll certainly be talking more about you as a singer, but as you know, ‘Mad About Music’ is a show about listening to music, and I see your first choice as a listener is Bach. Perhaps the most popular composer, by the way, in the history of the show; but everyone has their own reasons for choosing him. What are yours?
Hampson: Well, I think you have people who are very musically oriented. Anybody who knows anything about music just finds some root, and some basic understanding of music, in Bach’s musical language. It’s also the most developed expression of musical possibilities. Everything after Bach is a variation on a theme in some way. For me, however, Bach came into my life very, very soon, as one of the first composers I remember, when I was in school, it was in music appreciation class, and quite frankly, that’s not why I chose this, but the Brandenburg Concerti were, in fact, one of the first things I did. But it had more to do with the concert series in Spokane, Washington, where I started my musical career, was baroque music, and it was a crazy man who ran it, an oboist, and he was a passionate enthusiast for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and that’s where I first heard these recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, so he grew up – I grew up sort of between Karl Richter and Nikolaus Harnoncourt on record, and then of course later in my life, as I actually started working with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the first really important contacts I established in Germany in 1982 or 1983, and then he invited me to be part of the Bach series that he was recording, it was a dream come true!
Kaplan: The final movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 , performed by the Concentus musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting. The first selection of my guest on ‘Mad About Music’ today, Thomas Hampson, fresh from a performance last night at the Metropolitan Opera, where he’s singing Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser . Well, in evaluating your work, critics sometimes use the words ‘serious’ and ‘intelligent.’ Now, these are not normally the words used to describe performances of Callas or Pavarotti, for example.
Hampson: Well, I think Callas and Pavarotti are enormously serious. And enormously intellectual. I think that some of that labeling came to me because of the programs that I’ve done in recitals, and that’s all very kind, and perhaps they’re looking for nice adjectives because they can’t think of anything to say about my voice! I don’t know!
Kaplan: I thought maybe it was your lack of a ‘diva’ quality which I associate with people like Callas and Pavarotti.
Hampson: I’ve never been a voice that blows you away, as it were. I’m not one of those, as Marcel Singher used to say, ‘beautiful monsters.’ I think I’m a very good singer, and I think how I use my voice to express something is perhaps special, and some people react to the color or the timbre of my voice, or something like that, but – Callas and Pavarotti, these are just simply phenomenons of nature.
Kaplan: All right now, in making your musical selections, I also asked you to include recordings of your own performances, and I was very surprised not to find any Mahler song on your list. We’ll have a Mahler symphony later, which is on your list. I was surprised, because you are surely one of the foremost singers of Mahler’s songs today. You’ve even participated in the scholarly work that has corrected mistakes in the published scores. For all the reasons you just said, I hope you will forgive me if I’m going to ambush your list of music to be played, because you didn’t include one of these songs, and I have picked what is regarded by some, I don’t know if by you, but by many commentators on Mahler’s work as the greatest song he ever wrote, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell,’ ‘The Drummer Boy’. And of course we’ll have it performed by you. Why don’t you tell us the story of this song before we hear the music?
Hampson: ‘ Tamboursg’sell’ is one of the greatest songs he wrote, without question. It is one of his ‘anti-war’ songs, so this sort of satirical look through a kid’s eyes, again, of desertion, quite frankly, this Tamboursg’sell who actually is the drummer boy, is being led to his own gallows. For whatever reason, we don’t have the whole story of the conditions of his desertion. Having not stood the test of the war, or drumming, and had he remained this drummer, he wouldn’t be in this fix, and he – it’s a phenomenal march, and then the boy sees himself being marched past his own gallows; and sort of looking around at the crowd and the officers and almost a Christ-like forgiveness of what they’re doing, he realizes, I deserved this, I have to have this, and he says, goodbye, ‘gute Nacht.’
Kaplan: Gustav Mahler’s song, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell,’ ‘The Drummer Boy’, sung by my guest today on ‘Mad About Music,’ baritone Thomas Hampson, with Geoffrey Parsons on the piano. You can learn more about Thomas Hampson, read a transcript, or listen to any of our prior shows by logging onto our website at WNYC.org, and then just click on ‘Mad About Music.’ When we return, we’ll have a look at Thomas Hampson’s career in opera.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, Thomas Hampson, currently performing at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Wolfram, in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. In fact, you sung it last night, didn’t you? So, let’s talk about your career in opera. By now, you’ve performed some of the best-known roles in the repertoire for baritones, including Don Giovanni, Figaro, Simon Boccanegra, but there’s still some you haven’t yet tackled – Rigoletto, Falstaff, Wotan in Wagner’s ‘Ring’, Hans Sachs, in Meistersinger . Do you see any of these down the road?
Hampson: It’s a very long road! Maybe, well, certainly, I mean, Falstaff’s coming up next year, which, I just adore the opera, and made very good friends with Daniele Gatti when we did Boccanegra in Vienna, and we both believe that Falstaff has an awful lot to do with baritone and words and all that sort of thing, I don’t want to get precious with it, but I would like to have a chance at it, and he would very much like to do it as well. So, we’re going to have a go at Falstaff next year, I have no other Falstaffs on the calendar, but we’ll see.
Kaplan: What about some of the others? Some of those are for voices that are normally associated with more bass-baritones, like Wotan.
Hampson: Yes, Wotan, is a real stretch. I actually think Sachs would come down my path more likely than the Wotans. The Walküre Wotan is just a dimension, quite frankly, beyond me, in a lot of ways, and whether that ever came to me, I’m still a relatively young man, let’s say, in the middle of my career, who knows what will come down? But I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Sachs, I would hope, would happen, it’s a great, great character!
Kaplan: Now, you mentioned your relationship with the conductor Daniele Gatti, and earlier you talked about sparking to Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Who have been some of the other conductors, particularly early in your career, from whom you learned something special?
Hampson: Well, you learn from everybody, I mean, I am eternally grateful like any other American singer or singer in the world for anything you can do with James Levine.
Kaplan: But can you think of something particular, where it was Jimmy Levine who called your attention to it, or taught it to you, or made you aware of it?
Hampson: You know, it would be tough to come up with a specific thing, but I can tell you working with somebody like a Jimmy Levine, you just learn your craft better. I mean, the things you know about breathing early enough, or starting or ending a phrase musically or in fact paying attention to what it is that you can do with the phrase and let the orchestra, and let the music, do what they’re supposed to do, and not think too much, and all those sorts of things. You just simply get better. It just makes more sense. I don’t know any singer on the planet who hasn’t said of James Levine, I always sing better with Jimmy. It’s amazing.
Kaplan: All right, from the reviews of your performance in Tannhäuser , I gather that wasn’t any problem there, in fact, The New York Times characterized your account of the ‘Ode to the Evening Star’ as ‘elegant’. So I’m glad we’ll have a chance to hear it now; but first, why don’t you set it up for us, put it in the context of the story of the opera.
Hampson: Well, we’re in the third act now. Tannhäuser’s been banished to Rome to find forgiveness for his visit to Venusburg, which of course, these are all metaphors for forgiveness for yourself and for the pleasures of the flesh. Tannhäuser’s gone; Wolfram loves, in a chaste way, meaning that it has never been realized, Elizabeth , in the years where Tannhäuser wasn’t there, certainly the time that he wasn’t there, and certainly Wolfram and Elizabeth had contact, but Elizabeth loves Tannhäuser. Wolfram consolidates his emotions and his love and his entire relationship to Elizabeth , in what he perceives to be her farewell to God, earth, and Tannhäuser, and certainly never to be his again. He makes his entire symbol of decency and love and eroticism the star, Venus, which is the evening star; also in mythology, the morning star, but projects all of that onto the star and consolidates, in some ways, finds a tranquility in his unrequited love, in this star.
Kaplan: ‘The Ode to the Evening Star,’ an aria from Act III of Wagner’s Tannhäuser , the Berlin Staatskapelle led by Daniel Barenboim, and sung by my guest on ‘Mad About Music’ today, baritone Thomas Hampson. Some opera stars also sing so-called popular music. Bryn Terfel comes to mind, singing traditional Welsh songs, and more recently, the Swedish singer, Ann Sofie von Otter, just recorded songs from the Swedish pop group, ABBA. You don’t do too much of that, I don’t think.
Hampson: No, that would be a bit of stretch for me, I really adore the musical theatre in America , from, say, the 30s to the middle 60s at the latest. But especially Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and those big titles, and I mean ‘Begin the Beguine,’ or ‘In the Still of the Night,’ are big songs. They are tough to sing. They’re great to sing. And that kind of repertoire I enjoy very much. But I can’t imagine trying to sing a pop group’s, you know, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or something. I love it, but I couldn’t sing it.
Kaplan: Well, talking about pop music is a natural transition to one of the most popular, to use that word again, parts of ‘Mad About Music,’ which we call the ‘Wildcard’. We’ve a chance to select music from any genre: it can be rock, jazz, pop; we’ve had some fantastic choices with unexpected people picking them. What ‘Wildcard’ did you bring today?
Hampson: Well, this was actually the hardest decision because I listen to so many different kinds of music, and I’m crazy about jazz and contemporary jazz and all jazz, and Oscar Peterson is an idol of mine, and I love jazz guitar and all that, but I sort of closed my eyes and I thought, what moment outside of what I now do, is there just – and I landed, I’m 14 years old, I’m sitting in my soon-to-be brother-in-law’s Mercedes-Benz on Mount Rainier, and he’s got a brand-new eight-track tape deck installed, and he says, ‘Listen to this,’ and he slaps in Blood, Sweat & Tears. And my head is reeling, I’m going crazy, and I said, ‘My God, it’s great music,’ and so forth. And ‘Spinning Wheel,’ you know, has just, you know, ‘God Bless the Child That’s Got His Own,’ I mean, it’s one of my favorite albums, and it always has remained that way. I don’t listen to it that much, but it is also a great recording, and these jazz musicians and pop musicians, or rock musicians, then, and if you follow the genealogy from say, Blood, Sweat & Tears and you get into Steely Dan and the ‘Nightfly’, Donald Fagen, and you know these studio musicians have fantastic ability, and a lot of them had classical training behind them, and the harmony and the development of musical language is so much more sophisticated – pardon the expression – than a lot of just pop music. This is great, great stuff, and this is a super setting of a fantastic emotion.
Kaplan: Blood, Sweat & Tears, ‘Spinning Wheel,’ the ‘Wildcard’ selection of my guest on ‘Mad About Music’ today, singer Thomas Hampson. There’s only room on the show to play a few works you’ve listened to, because we wanted to mix in works you perform. So, I wonder, even if we won’t play them, what are some of the other kinds of music, or specific music you listen to, that you’re not going to perform? For example, you come home and you’re elated. What might you put on to feel even better?
Hampson: Well, I do listen to a lot of jazz. In the morning, getting the day started, I spend a lot of time in early music. I adore Gregorian chant, and medieval music, but especially renaissance music. If I’m in the middle of a tour and I need some solitude, you know, Schubert sonatas are pretty wonderful to listen to. Surprisingly, I listen to more modern music, and avant-garde music than you might imagine. I’m very keen on understanding new composers and their languages. If I just simply need to unwind and ‘leave me alone’ and calm down, it’s going to be John McLaughlin and maybe some Coltrane, maybe some Miles Davis. Maybe the happy time, maybe just to feel good about life and marvel at just pure music, I might grab some Oscar Peterson, that’s pretty good stuff.
Kaplan:: All right, now beyond music, I know another activity that plays a prominent role in your life, because I saw some evidence of it actually in your performance of Don Giovanni , which was a modern interpretation of this classic, and it included a moment when you’re actually using a golf club, in preparation perhaps, to defend yourself, or to attack someone. And then you turn to the audience and you took a big swing with a driver. One can imagine the shot going well over 300 yards. The audience reaction was amusing, because some people were clearly annoyed that golf was introduced at all, and you could hear a few harrumphs, but also there was a spontaneous outbreak of applause, obviously from the golfers in the audience. It was a darn good swing!
Hampson: Well, thank you for the compliment. I never heard the harrumphs, all I heard was the applause.
Kaplan: Well, I was also thinking about the role that golf plays in your non-singing life. This is an important sport for you, isn’t it?
Hampson: It’s a very important sport to me, and one of the articles I would like to write is actually the coincidences or how there is so much musicality in playing golf and there’s so many things you can learn about yourself and your self-discipline as a singer; quite frankly, as a person, but specifically musically and as a singer, in a sport like golf. It’s very important to me and I play it as much as I can, and not nearly as much as I’d like.
Kaplan: I never heard the musical connection before, but
Hampson: Well, there you are; got to write the article.
Kaplan:: Gives me a good reason to go back to music here. So, I see your next selection is Fidelio , the Leonore Overture No. 3 .
Hampson: I adore this piece. I’ve never sung Fidelio , I’m going to sing the minister next year for the 50 th anniversary of the reopening of the Vienna Staatsoper. Big scene, the ending scene of Fidelio ; but for me, the opera and the music is somehow very much about the triumph of truth over oppressive human behavior. I’m not sure that I’m an optimist or a pessimist, but in my belief in life, my driving force of life’s energy, what goes around comes around, and so forth and so on, I do believe that what is right will live longer and will eventually vindicate over evil and oppression and small thought and fundamentalism. And I know these are big, big titles to land on an overture, but this is the kind of awareness and emotion that always wells up in me and I don’t think I have ever heard this overture without sort of blinking back an emotional tear of some sort – it’s so exuberant, I think it’s one of the pieces I would like to have played at my funeral.
Kaplan: The concluding moments of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 performed by members of the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein live from Carnegie Hall, a selection of my guest on today’s edition of ‘Mad About Music,’ the singer Thomas Hampson. The American singer, and therefore I’m not surprised to see that your next selection is an American song, a setting of Walt Whitman’s poetry by Ned Rorem.
Hampson: Well, Walt Whitman is probably the first great poet and great prophet out of America . Ned Rorem is certainly one of our greatest song composers in the classical world. The meeting of the two is extraordinary. As a lot of people know, I did a big study and recording on Walt Whitman songs set by various composers. I think this is one of the most beautiful songs, and it’s also a perfect example of how a minute and 25 seconds of music can give us a complete cosmos of the human experience.
Kaplan: Ned Rorem’s song, ‘Look Down Fair Moon,’ set to the poetry of Walt Whitman and sung by my guest on today’s edition of ‘Mad About Music,’ Thomas Hampson, with Craig Rutenberg on the piano. When we return, I’ll have a few fantasy-type questions to ask Thomas Hampson.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest Thomas Hampson, who is visiting ‘Mad About Music’ in between performances of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera. Now everyone seeing this production and all the reviews I’ve read are saying it’s simply wonderful. But leading up to performance is usually an extended rehearsal period in which a lot can go wrong in relationships between singers and the conductor, between singers and the director. Over the years when you’ve come home sputtering about a bad day at the opera, what kind of things are you talking about? Not that happened in New York , but in general?
Hampson: In general, a bad day at the opera, a bad day at rehearsal, a pedantic producer, or a pedantic assistant producer, who’s telling you to go left and right, and you don’t think they understand why you’re going left or right – you know, aggravating things. A conductor who you start to feel doesn’t like you. You know, it’s all sort of incredible self-insecurities. Sometimes it’s really about having to try and do something that physically is just very, very difficult, and you’re just not achieving it. Most of the time for most of us, it’s, we just don’t feel we’re singing it very well yet, you know, we’re very preoccupied with that sort of thing.
Kaplan: All right, then, let’s turn to your final selection and it’s Mahler again. This time, the Fourth Symphony. And it doesn’t surprise me that you’d like us to play the final movement, which is after all a song – a song that Mahler wrote eight years earlier as an independent song, and then decided to make it the last movement of the symphony. What is it about this music that attracts you, this particular symphony?
Hampson: I really do love this symphony. It’s one of my favorites, if I actually am going to say that. It’s a universe unto itself, one can describe and talk about these things forever, but specifically this movement, what moves me, I love the poem. I love the idea that to get some – I think there’s two things going on, I think there’s this young boy to get relief from his incredible hunger and rather destitute existence on earth, that any child feels at any particular time, but I think he’s probably got it in aces at this point. He imagines himself in heaven, not only eating but being served by all those bloody saints that he has to memorize in school to know what their purposes are, and of course, they’re the saints that he articulates in the poem, relate to the particular events that he’s imagining in heaven, and I think if probably the poem was in its oral tradition, in some ways, a way to remember the saints, and what they’re meant for. But this boy’s getting a tremendous relief from that awful earthly life and imagining himself in a heavenly life, and it’s a genius portrayal by Mahler in its excitement and its lyricism, and its sort of wonder and animal sounds and you know, it’s just a fantastic moment and it ends in this so, most gorgeous serenity that you could imagine, and it’s also one of the few examples that we have of his very close relationship to Schubert.
Kaplan: The final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 , performed by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, with soprano Irmgard Seefried and led by conductor Bruno Walter in a 1950 live recording from the Salzburg Festival, the final selection of my guest on ‘Mad About Music’ today, the singer Thomas Hampson. All right. Then, as a final question, I wonder if after a career of being stimulated, frustrated and just working together with so many conductors and directors telling you what to do, as you say, go left, go right. Have you ever thought, perhaps as Placido Domingo has, of ever becoming a conductor yourself?
Hampson: No. I think it’s too late for that. There’s too many fundamental building blocks as a musician and musical theory and understanding, it would take too much time to pick them up. What I do enjoy, however, are doing concerts with chamber ensembles where I work on the rehearsal with them. I can conduct; I’ve worked in Vienna with the Wiener Virtuosen and other chamber groups and it’s quite fun; but actually to stand up and be a conductor, or music director, I don’t think that’s in my future.
Kaplan: Well, I guess many conductors will breathe a sigh of relief then! Thomas Hampson, you’ve been a superb guest today. Thank you for joining us, in between your performances at the Met, and for those of you who haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend, there’ll be three more performances on Thursday, next Tuesday and Saturday; and we’ll return in the new year on Sunday, January 2nd . This is Gilbert Kaplan for ‘Mad About Music.’