Sep 21, 2012
By Andrew Druckenbrod / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson has as compelling a voice in the discussion about songs as he does singing them.
And, yes, there has been a discussion within classical music about how to differentiate the music of composers writing in tradition of art music and that of commercially viable (successful or not at the moment) songwriters in the pop realm. The issue is not that one is better than the other, but that the difference is substantial enough to warrant a distinction, just like the difference between, say punk and R&B.
“People have been trying to define art song for so long,” says Hampson, 56. The preeminent artist who has been booked at every major opera house and orchestra over his long career, the American singer also writes and lectures frequently about vocal music. While he asserts that “any effort to retell human existence is art,” he feels strongly that, “We owe it to the creators of any different epoch to couch their art in the context they were in.” And that also applies to composers of today.
Most composers view art song as the lineage of Franz Schubert and the others of different nationality who treated shorter songs in the same manner as they would a symphony. Some, in fact, substituted the orchestra for the piano. Case in point is Richard Strauss’ orchestral song output, some of which Mr. Hampson will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this weekend at Heinz Hall. But finding a description of that tradition’s contemporary iteration can be a biased or outright pejorative discourse. Take the Harvard Dictionary of Music’s definition of art song: “A song of serious artistic intent written by a trained composer, as distinct from a folksong.” Stated as if no pop, R&B, country, you name it, artist has ever done so.
Few today would assert that conservatory training is a requirement for art of any type. And few would deny that many pop artists create art through their songs, commercially successful or not, yet you don’t find Bob Dylan or Paul Simon listed among the composers such as William Bolcom in Mr. Hampson’s important “Song of America Project.” The reasoning is the same. It is to give some distinction, not to exclude or to create a false dichotomy of high and low. For Mr. Hampson, there is a much more concrete and satisfying definition of art song: “poetry set to music,” he says. In other words, what sets off the two broad types is that composers usually write music to fit for a preexisting poem, while pop songwriters set lyrics that have been written specifically to be accompanied by music.
“Lyrics and poetry are two different things,” he emphasizes. “A poem being set to music does not come from the same technique as pop song. It is the metaphor of words translated through the metaphor of music.”
Mr. Hampson isn’t crusading to prop-up semantics, but to bringing attention to a genre of music that remains essentially unknown in America. “I am not trying to define what American song is,” he says. “I am trying to make available this amazing literature of classical song that continues today.”
He has poured his life’s energy into this mission as much as into any performance. His Hampsong Foundation, clever title and all, is both a repository of information and an advocacy organization for vocal music that will never hit the Top 40. It is “dedicated to the support and proliferation of the art of song in America and around the world as a means to foster communication and understanding among cultures.”
“My passion is the dialogue between poet and composer,” he says. “They become the prism through which you see human behavior that is similar across cultures — different wells drilling down to the same river of human behavior.”
Thomas Hampson will fill in as a guest host for Terrance McKnight on WQXR this Thursday, November 5, beginning at 7 pm ET. During this hour, Thomas will celebrate the song repertoire, featuring works by Schubert, Mahler, Ives, and many others. Tune in and learn more about Hampson’s guest host hour via WQXR.
PENTATONE continues its American Opera Series with Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere recording of Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix (2019), an opera on the life of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist. Da Ponte (1749-1838) was an adventurer, who not only travelled the world, but in a way also through time, living across what seem to be impossible moments of history that never should have aligned in somebody’s life.
The documentary by C Major Entertainment “The Animated Story of Jenny Lind”, in which Thomas Hampson is the narrator, has won this year’s Golden Prague Fesitval’s Performing Arts Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious and acclaimed Performing Arts festival for TV and film, with opera, dance, concerts and documentaries from all over the world. It is also on the Shortlist of potential winners of the Prix Italia.
Thomas Hampson makes his Global Concert Hall debut next month, performing with the Orchester Wiener Akademie under the baton of its founder and musical director Martin Haselböck. The concert, filmed at the Brucknerhouse Linz in August 2020, will be streamed on IDAGIO’s Global Concert Hall on Thursday, October 15, beginning at 8 pm Berlin / 2 pm New York. The concert will be available to stream through October 22.
Thomas Hampson returns to the stage this month, with a concert at the Stiftskirche Millstatt, and two performances at the Salzkammergut Classic Festival. Beginning on August 2 in Millstatt, Hampson will perform lieder by Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms with pianist Christian Koch, and the Carinthia Chor Millstatt will sing Carinthian songs under the direction of Bernhard Zlanabitnig.
For the first time ever, audiences around the world will have a special opportunity to watch the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018 world premiere production of Hadrian, in full, online. On Monday, August 10 at 6:30 p.m. ET, in partnership with Montréal Pride Festival, the COC is hosting a free, one-night-only digital stream of the modern grand opera. The Hadrian Watch Party helps kick off one week of virtual Pride events and will feature a live Q&A session with both the composer and celebrated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor, a giant in Canadian theatre.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.