Mahler ‘has overwhelmed my life,’ singer says

Thomas Hampson was raised in Spokane and loves American song, everything from Stephen Foster to Charles Ives to Cole Porter to Emmylou Harris. But since the late 1980s he has lived in Vienna and, as most everyone who has followed his career knows, has an especially deep affinity for the music of Gustav Mahler.

Das Lied von der Erde

View video of the ‘Song of the Earth’

He remembers driving from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at age 21, popping a recording of a Mahler symphony into the tape player, and really getting hit by the power of the music for the first time: “It just absolutely overwhelmed me,” he says, “and I had to pull off the road and listen to this thing. And really from that day, the whole conversation with Mahler and his music and his times has overwhelmed my life.”

Last month, more than 30 years after pulling off the road, Hampson was in San Francisco to sing Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, part of the orchestra’s live-in-concert Mahler recording project for its SFS Media label. Relaxing in his dressing room after a rehearsal at Davies Symphony Hall, Hampson, the 52 year-old baritone, took some time out to talk about being inspired by Mahler then and now.

Affable and erudite, Hampson, who is co-editor of a critical edition of Mahler’s songs, speaks with a mild Viennese-inflected drawl, the result, I assume, of his Austro-American lifestyle. (He lives in Vienna with his wife, Andrea Herberstein, and three step-children, but still spends a lot of time touring the United States.)

He described singing with his two older sisters in church as a boy, as well as working as a landscaper, a sheetrock hanger and a singing waiter in a German restaurant while gradually growing serious about voice.

After the mid-’70s roadside revelation – that music could actually “be describing a consciousness . . . a cosmos” – Hampson spent a good 15 years figuring out why Mahler was who he was and how he fit into “that amazing time of civilization before the great catastrophe of World War I.”

The fin de siècle fascinates Hampson. He really gets going talking about Zemlinsky, Webern and Berg; the “layers upon layers” of intellectual pursuit that characterized the period; the interests in Orientalism, Buddhism, aesthetics and philosophy: “Mahler was part of this: what is this transcendence of life into death?”

It’s what “Das Lied” is about. The symphony-length work dates to 1908, the year after Mahler lost a daughter, Maria, to scarlet fever, was himself diagnosed with a heart defect, and lost his cherished conducting job at the Vienna Court Opera. Grieving, the composer turned to a volume of German translations of Chinese verse about isolation, resignation, youth, mortality, death and the like, and composed this epic, setting six poems for orchestra and two solo voices.

Hampson has studied the letters of Webern, Berg and others about “Das Lied”: “Everybody was astonished when they first heard this piece: ‘Could you believe . . . that he wrote this? This is overwhelming. I thought my heart would stop.'”

The work’s final movement, “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” stretches across 30 minutes and contains a great funeral march, which Hampson describes as “completely without artifice. There’s a directness, an honesty, an attempt to say something about life and nature and cosmos that is really a masterpiece.”

“Das Lied” may be “the most personal thing” Mahler ever wrote, Hampson continues. He feels a personal link himself, having been engaged to perform the work about 40 times with various orchestras.

Twice before he has come to San Francisco for performances of “Das Lied” with Tilson Thomas. This time, they have spent the first two days of rehearsals “weeding out clichés” and “getting some of the cobwebs off of it,” in order to let the music tell its story as Mahler (who left copious instructions in the score) intended.

Hampson and Tilson Thomas met through Leonard Bernstein nearly 20 years ago. Growing in stature as a singer, Hampson had begun performing with Bernstein in the mid-’80s. Long a mentor to Tilson Thomas, “Lenny,” as Hampson calls him, “called Michael and said, ‘You guys should get together.’ ”

In 1990, they did, performing Mahler songs – Tilson Thomas at the piano, Hampson singing, Bernstein in the audience – at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Bernstein died that fall, but the two younger men became good friends and fellow Mahler freaks.

Flash forward: What’s it like today, being in a room with Hampson and Tilson Thomas when they start talking about Mahler, his life, his music, his scores? “For anybody else in the room it’s an amazing bore,” Hampson says. “For Michael and I, it’s like doing drugs, without doing drugs. We tend to feed on each other, with a lot of segues and probably a substantial amount of bloviation. It’s a very lively conversation, but most of the other people in the room, their heads start nodding back or they start drooling.

“We’ve done this piece a lot together,” he says of “Das Lied.” In rehearsal, their tendency is to “tear something apart pretty hard and go at it and then kind of see what remains in the subconscious. We both have to be careful about over-thinking it.”

He remembers Bernstein’s advice about “going out and being the music.” That’s important, he says, because with Mahler, there is a tendency to over-identify with the music’s roiling emotions and then to try and imagine and be Mahler.

“But it is not our right to impersonate Gustav Mahler in a performance,” he goes on. Besides, “everyone’s preoccupied with Mahler’s angst and Mahler’s death wishes and all these macabre stories.” What’s forgotten is his “insatiable zest of life. There was this passionate need to be alive. And I think that as tragic as his life is, it’s very important to know that Mahler wanted to live. Here was a man who loved his family, who loved nature, who loved his children. The loss of Maria changed his personality. It was a cataclysmic event of his life. But all of these things were blows upon an amazingly living, loving human being.”

And so the puzzle: “How do you identify with something without overcooking it?” Hampson suggests a “kind of a Zen backing off from the music.”

Striking a balance seems to be what it’s all about – in front of 2,700 people and all those microphones.

“I’m not terribly preoccupied with the microphones,” Hampson finishes. “It certainly increases pressure. But on the other hand, we have four performances. Michael and I have both wanted to do this piece for a long time, but we’re not trying to go out and make the recording. We’re at the point in our lives where . . .”

He pauses. “I don’t think we just want to cross all the t’s and dot every i. And we don’t want to overcook it.”