National Treasures

For baritone Thomas Hampson, Tuesday’s concert at Bass Hall is not so much about the art of song but about our national creative spirit.

“There’s always a drive in America to say something about being alive in America,” Hampson says.

And one of the best expressions of that drive, Hampson says, is American poetry set to music by American composers — hence, this recital of some of our nation’s great songs.

Hampson is in the first phase of the 11-city “Song of America” tour sponsored by the Library of Congress and presented in Fort Worth by the Cliburn Foundation. The tour also will stop at Carnegie Hall in New York, Orchestra Hall in Chicago and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, among other venues.

Some of the composers on the program (Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland) are familiar, while others, such as John Duke (1899-1984) or the forgotten Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991), aren’t. Although not all of the poetry represented will be American, American poetry and the American way of looking at words will predominate — as, for instance, in Henry T. Burleigh’s ear-grabbing setting of Walt Whitman’s Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, describing a wizened slave’s view of the Union army. In a show of his devotion to both American poets and American composers, Hampson will present 20th-century composer Henry Duke’s settings of once widely read character sketches by poet Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Hampson, who’s making his second appearance at Bass Hall, may be the best baritone of his generation. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut at 31, and he emerged in the 1980s as a major interpreter of Mahler and Mozart both here and abroad. Like most American singers, he didn’t have deep knowledge, at that point in his career, about the hugely varied repertoire of American song, from the pithy art songs of Ives to the jazzy utterances of Gershwin to the brilliantly simple melodies of Foster.

Then, one day, browsing through a music store that was going out of business in Albuquerque, N.M., Hampson discovered three filing cabinets full of out-of-print songs that had been sitting there for decades.

“I offered $100 for all three cabinets,” he says. “They were glad to get rid of them.”

After discovering some hidden gems in these cabinets — among plenty of dross — Hampson became hooked on exploring American song. He began, between his more visible appearances in major operas, to lurk about in libraries and old music stores. Audiences that had come to expect American artists to perform Ives, Copland or Barber on recitals along with Schubert or Schumann were now treated, in Hampson’s recitals, to forgotten works by Charles Griffes, Edward MacDowell and Arthur Falwell.

Meanwhile, even as Hampson’s reputation as a discoverer, interpreter and guardian of this legacy grew, a fan of his, James Billington, had become head of the Library of Congress.

Billington, an opera buff, says, “I knew about Thomas Hampson long before I knew him personally.”

But Billington soon learned that Hampson was also a frequent “customer” of the library in his research on American songs.

And, although the library was well-established as an international research center for a great many subjects, Billington wanted to raise the library’s profile as a focal point of American culture and as a repository of America’s creativity.

“We want more Americans to be aware of the benefits of the Library of Congress,” Billington says. “We want to take some of the treasures out to the country.”

Having Hampson tour in performances of the library’s collection of American songs was a natural choice.

“The song is one of the easiest artistic forms to appreciate,” Billington says. “This will remind people of a great American tradition: the song recital with piano accompaniment. And Tom is very articulate about these songs. He’s able to help people see the significance of these songs.”

In conjunction with the concert, the Library of Congress will set up a kiosk at Bass Hall displaying reproductions of artifacts of American and Texas music — all with the idea of helping Americans become reacquainted with a major part of our national heritage.

“Sometimes we get into trouble in classical music in building walls around what we do,” Hampson says. “I want to make what I do a huge umbrella, that includes more, not less.”