American songs

Monterey County Herald | June 1st, 2006

A few days ago a man by the name of Albert Imperato left a message on my phone urging me to write about a unique concert taking place in San Jose by Thomas Hampson, the internationally renowned baritone.

Intrigued, I returned the call to learned more about the famed singer’s collaboration with the Library of Congress to celebrate the history of creativity in America.

Described once as tall, charismatic and as square-jawed as the Marlboro man, Hampson possesses a rich, affecting voice and empowers his singing with interpretive depth and intelligence.

I had just enjoyed his performance of Mozart’s aria “La ci darem la mano” on the PBS 30-year retrospective of “Live from Lincoln Center.”

So, it was a double pleasure to find myself in conversation with the baritone shortly thereafter about his 11-city “Song of America” tour.

Hampson, a passionate champion of American song, explores a repertoire that extends from the 1700s to the present day.

“The tour is really the visible element of my work with the library in the continuing development of their music division Web site, specifically American concert song,” Hampson said. “I have been working with them over the years to put together a cross referenced database of songs that have been recorded, songs that have been written, anthologies that have already been printed. My dream is to have things that are already available in the public domain available for download and even an online streaming library.”

Hampson sees these songs as a “diary of America becoming America.” He found a collaborative soul mate in Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, whose unprecedented national program, “Creativity Across America,” fit perfectly with Hampson’s vision of preserving and showcasing this great treasure of Americana.

“Jim Billington is passionate about the Library of Congress being the people’s library and not just some huge government institution,” said Hampson. “That’s why the tour developed so much momentum so quickly. At every concert site there are advanced teams that come in and work with the community to help serve the needs and interests of that community.

“And they are traveling with priceless manuscripts that you can see at the concert. My idea is that you can actually teach American history through song. We’ve had some wonderful educational outreaches along those lines.”

Hampson said this widely acclaimed project is the first of several such tours that will take place over the next few years.

Programs include unfamiliar concert songs of well-established American composers, such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, as well as in the songs penned by lesser-known, but yet equally influential composers, including Harry T. Burleigh, Arthur Farwell, and Elinor Remick Warren.

There are Psalm settings, hymns, folksongs, cowboy songs, war songs, African-American spirituals and much more.

“Mr. Hampson conveys the idea of an oral tradition that it is his mission to pass on, with the closed-eyed intensity of a blind poet when he is singing and the zeal of an evangelist when he is addressing the audience about its cultural heritage,” wrote Anne Midgette of The New York Times.

The “Song of America” has been wonderfully successful according to Hampson. He has appeared with this material on widely received programs such as “Good Morning, America” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.”

“I can really feel the enthusiasm that audiences have for this repertoire: they understand and are connecting with the storytelling the composers and poets have presented them with and they are seeing this music as a narrative of their own experiences,” said Hampson. “This has been an uplifting and entirely positive experience for me.”

Hampson, who is no stranger to our region, confesses to being an avid golfer with a fondness for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. He has appeared at Sunset Center Theater in Carmel and thrilled AT&T volunteers with his singing as well.

The San Jose performance of “Song of America” takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Theatre.

Tickets and information are available at the Opera San Jose Box Office at (408) 437-4450. The ticket includes a post-performance reception. GO!