Q&A with Thomas Hampson: Just put the quarter in me
For baritone Thomas Hampson, April is far from the cruelest month. In addition to finishing up a run of La Traviata at the Met (which opened March 29), he continues his yearlong work with the New York Philharmonic as its first Artist-in-Residence and its Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence (“Kind of long titles…unfortunately I could never get them on one business card,” he quips). He gives a recital of Barber and Schumann songs on April 11, then performs in the second installment of the Phil’s new-music series, Contact!, on April 16 and 17. It’s a good thing he recently moved from Europe back to New York City, although as Hampson asserts, “I don’t really feel like I’ve come back home, because I was never away from home…[though] to some extent there is a change of a center of gravity.” After the jump, Hampson elaborates on his schedule, singing in Hebrew, and his penchants for American song, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.
You’ve been doing a ton of work around the country, and on record, with your Song of America project. What first drew you to American song?
Song’s a big thing for me. I think poetry set to music is a wonderful art form and very informative of the culture that it comes from. And, of course, that applies to our culture as well. I think somewhere ten or 15 years ago it became clear to me that going around entirely with Schumann or Brahms was a waste of time. I started looking at American song more through ten- or 15-year slices of American cultural history, and found that very illuminating. That actually has been the thrust of the project. I think that seemed to make sense to a lot of people.
It’s also an interesting cross-genre phenomenon in our country. Songs like Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” has been recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Mary J. Blige.
The sentiment of the song and the tunes and melodies have become so part and parcel to our identification of American music. In a lot of ways Stephen Foster’s music is part of the trunk of a very large tree of American music, and you can go from his music up the branch of recitals, or you can go into musical theater through vaudeville and ragtime. Certain music can go into the jazz world as well. I think there’s a lot of first-blush identification of American expression in Stephen Foster, [and] that will wear for a very long time. Two of my favorites for “Hard Times” are Emmylou Harris and, of course, Johnny Cash. They’re just fantastic.
How has it been working with the New York Philharmonic so intensely this month?
All the scholarly adjectives aside, it’s just a great pleasure and privilege to be inside this organization and to make music and dialogue with the musicians and the public as to what your repertoire means on various levels. With my mandate, as it were, to be able to show the layers behind vocal music…there’s quite an extensive world of literature, history and context in any serious piece of vocal literature that we do. And that’s been fun to expose and explore under this context. I’m kind of intimidated and humbled at the same time to have something I do in [Leonard Bernstein’s] name, and I certainly don’t want to screw it up! [Laughs]
You’re performing a variety of programs with the Phil this month, from Barber and Schumann lieder to a new work in Contact!
It’s a heck of a month. I’m kind of A to Z. Just put the quarter in me! In fact, most of the music I’ve sung this season with the orchestra has been 20th century. We went back and forth on what would be the best, and I said, “Look, what I really want to do and what I’ve been doing in other places is concentrating first and foremost on really celebrating Samuel Barber.” It’s a very necessary celebration, of one of the country’s greatest composers. And of course it’s also a Schumann year. My life is split very often between my European schedule and my American schedule. Of course, being part of a new work and getting to know Matthias Pintscher, whose work I’ve known for quite some time. He’s a fascinating guy. I did not know he spoke Hebrew, and when I first sat down and he told me what he wanted to write, what he said was, “What I really want to do is write in Hebrew.” And I had been going on about a concert series I did with Zubin [Mehta] in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic and said how much I like to sing in Hebrew and he burst out laughing and put this book in front of me and said, “I want to set Song of Solomon.” And I said “Great idea, hope it’s in Hebrew!” So it’s my fault. [Laughs] Now I gotta learn the damn thing. It’s very difficult, but beautiful beautiful text, and it’s a very beautiful language.
And for something completely different, you’re also in La Traviata at the Met.
I never tire of Traviata, and of course every opportunity at the Met is an honor and a great privilege. Angela Gheorghiu is a wonderful singer and a great colleague, and this young boy James Valenti is very exciting. There’s a lot of wonderful elements here. It’s a very traditional but beautiful production. And it’s always a new set of circumstances to put a production back together. Then at the end of April I sing for two of my favorite colleagues on the face of the planet in tributary evenings—one evening for Marilyn Horne and the other for Frederica von Stade, who are just two of my closest friends. It’s a fun month. It’s a little bit of champagne, a little bit of steak, a whole lot of work. I like it.