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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Concert Review: Right Songs, Wrong Space

Thomas Hampson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The smooth Thomas Hampson.
Photo from

"You're all applauding at the wrong time."

That's what baritone Thomas Hampson said, halfway through his engaging performance of Song for America a carefully curated cycle of American art songs drawn from a wide variety of composers. The concert was also being filmed for future release.

Mr. Hampson gave the recital in the giant glass foyer of the New American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This vast chamber of stone and glass suffers from an echo-y acoustic that reflects sound from a number of hard, bright surfaces. But those technical problems did not faze the singer, who pushed on through the program despite the near-unmanageable acoustic.

The concert opened with songs by Francis Hopkinson and Stephen Foster, before jumping forward to settings by Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The Ives songs, particularly "Circus Train" engaged Mr. Hampson fully, and featured some exceptional accompaniment from pianist Vlad Iftinca.

"When they asked me to do this here, I jumped at the chance," he told his audience, a rapt band of Met donors, music lovers and members of the press. Mr. Hampson ended the first set with "Tyger! Tyger!" by Virgil Thomson, one of the few settings of a British poet on the program. After a short pause, he delved into art songs by Samuel Barber, and the journey resumed.

Mr. Hampsons' aural journey took a turn into the darkness, with "Night Wanderers" by Samuel Barber, an account of hobo life, and the grim "Lonely People," a setting of Langston Hughes by Jean Berger. He captured the bleak despair of the protagonists in both songs, mining the same vein of angst that he regularly brings to the operatic stage.

The official program ended with two short song cycles. The first: Blue Mountain Ballads featured settings of rural folk poety by composer Paul Bowles. These songs, based on texts by Tennessee Williams evoke the pain and suffering of America's rapidly shrinking frontiers. The second (originally titled "Mavericks") features folksy characters who each meet a grim end. 

Mr. Hampson gave his most impressive vocal light and shading to  Richard Cory, the story of a man about town who finally chooses suicide. He created the air of religious fervor and hypocrisy for General William Booth with the repeated refrain: "Are ye washed in the blood of the lamb." And he opened up the full power of his resonant instrument for the set closer, "Danny Deever." And it resonated: making the walls of the New American Wing ring with this tale of a solder's death by hanging.

Those notes were still ringing when Mr. Hampson came back for a pair of songs about rivers: Shenandoah and Aaron Copland's arrangement of "De Boatmen's Dance." As his voice steered the audience smoothly downstream, one wondered if a shipwreck awaited the sound engineer who had to record the performance in this beautiful, but ill-suited space.

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