Baritone Thomas Hampson is habitually attracted to novel considerations. That may account for the freshness of his approach to everything. Addressing a New York Philharmonic audience, for instance, he brandishes a cell phone and shares the belief that his listeners will turn off the devices. His angle, he says, is to remind the crowd to turn them on again after the talk is over.
He is also habitually attracted to new endeavors. Internationally recognized as a leading performer in the realms of Opera and Lieder, as well as a soloist with orchestra, Hampson has added to the number of balls he keeps in the air by initiating a series of solo recitals that he calls “Song of America.”
Hampson brings “Song of America” to McCarter Theater on Tuesday, November 17. His collaborator at the piano in Princeton is Craig Rutenberg.
“Song of America” has brought Hampson in touch with perceptions of music in remote parts of the country, as well as in its leading musical centers. In a telephone interview from New York Hampson says, “I was surprised in 2005-’06 when I was starting the project that in some places I was confronted with people who had never experienced a vocal recital before. ‘You mean that just you and a piano will be on stage, and that the two of you can fill a space for 1,000 people without amplification,’ they would say. And then they would ask, ‘Won’t it be as boring as all get out?’ In some places a vocal recital seemed a startling idea.”
“Song of America” was developed with the Library of Congress, where Hampson has served as a special advisor since 2008. The program can vary, as Hampson dictates. One package has a long panorama; others focus on getting from agrarian to modern times, others on the 19th century or the 20th century. “With each tour, every city is different,” Hampson says. “I try to tailor the program to the public of a particular city and to how they listen to songs. The Princeton program is similar to Virginia’s in having a long historical sweep. It’s a very full program with some glimpses of new stuff. The Daugherty piece, ‘Letter to Mrs. Bixby,’ was written last year. Each song is a beacon of its own cosmos. They’re individual, identifiable pieces.”
Programs for each city are crafted during conversation between Hampson and the presenter. “It’s no longer the days of what Madame So-and-So is going to present. I call the presenter and talk about the program. We have wonderful dialogues. [McCarter’s Bill] Lockwood is easy to work with. ‘Song of America’ is close to his heart. He’s concerned with access to the public and with working with people, not with what I will or won’t do. I have a conversation with presenters to find the best of all possible worlds, and it works.”
Hampson has set his own limits for programs in the “Song of America” project. “I won’t sing arias from operas or musical theater as part of this project,” he says. “This project is about American poetry set to music. That’s different from lyrics. Each song has a different thrust, based on the composer, the poem, or the historical period.
“‘Song of America’ is a kind of narration,” Hampson says. “It’s how the storytelling times of our culture show up in the songs. The premise of the project is: Poetry set to music is a kind of diary of our nation. Each song is emblematic of what it was to be alive then.”
For conveying the history of America through song, Hampson avoids programs devoted to a single composer. “It’s a richer experience to see the development of American culture coming from several races and cultures. It’s more rewarding than an all-anybody program. It makes sense not to compare ourselves with others. We have to look at the evidence of how we tried to be ourselves and make our own culture. There’s more risk taking in literature and music in the United States than elsewhere. Many composers have a wider scope to work in than composers in other cultures with more rigid artistic boundaries. Americans are more concerned with individuality, with being a minority in a majority culture; that’s the case with blacks in a white culture. We get to know how our social contract works through looking at songs.”
The project has been captured on a CD, “Wondrous Free,” which contains 22 pieces from the “Song of America” storehouse. The title comes from Francis Hopkinson’s 1759 song “My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free,” a setting of a poem by Thomas Parnell, and the first song written in what was to become the United States. The Hopkinson work opens the Princeton program.
As in the “Song of America” tour, Hampson has two piano collaborators on the CD. They are Wolfram Rieger and Craig Rutenberg. Rieger is a German-based pianist particularly interested in art songs. Rutenberg is head of music administration at the Metropolitan Opera. Asked why he uses two pianists, Hampson says, “I sing a lot of concerts. All three of us are very good friends. It’s about song, and not a political statement. We’ve got an embarrassment of riches.” On the recording Rieger plays for 10 pieces and Rutenberg plays for 12. “I was not careful about the division on the recording,” Hampson says. “It would have been OK if it was five and 17.
“Most of the songs were recorded for online presentation,” Hampson continues. “The decision to make a CD came later. There’s a lot of serendipity in life.”
And there’s also a lot of purposeful decision-making in Hampson’s life because of his embrace of new media.
With “Wondrous Free” he is the first artist to launch his iPhone app. It will soon be available through iTunes.
Taking advantage of the internet, Hampson has launched a dedicated website devoted to the “Song of America” project, www.songofamerica.net. It is intended to become a large-scale database of American song.
“The website goes from research to retail,” Hampson says. “It has a cross reference database. It has links to poets, music, historical periods, and retail outlets. It can grow exponentially because it’s interactive and inter-relational. You can find out things like other settings by a composer represented, who else set a particular song, or how something fits into the timetable of U.S. history. I’m the musicologist’s best friend.”
Still in a beta version — “to give me time to get the kinks out,” Hampson says — the website has a full-time staff of four. A total of five to seven people, including technical experts, work on the site. The website is produced through Hampson’s Hampsong Foundation, founded in 2003, which also supports the “Song of America” project. “Producing the website is more fun than writing a book,” Hampson notes.
Hampson’s new media credentials are impeccable. He can be found on Facebook and YouTube. Furthermore, he devises new applications of new media. Here’s an example.
As the scholar-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic and its first artist-in-residence, Hampson lectured on the shifting nature of song in Vienna in the 1920s, devoting himself primarily to Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony,” in which he was to solo. Since Zemlinksy is a newly rediscovered composer, Hampson informed himself about the piece in an informal conversation with veteran Zemlinsky conductor James Conlon, who has led the work several times. By inviting a video team to record the conversation, Hampson was able to share the interchange with his listeners; to those attending, Hampson pointed out his innovative use of new media.
Incidentally, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s program featuring the Zemlinsky was Neeme Jarvi, conductor emeritus of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and Hampson expressed his excitement about working with Jarvi again.
As distance professor at the Manhattan School of Music, Hampson describes his post as creating “the real time version of podcasts. Manhattan is a leader in Internet II circuitry,” he says, “which is on the edge of making educational institutions available to a wide public. The system is fast and has wide access. It has exponential use and will change the face of education.
"I’m very excited about new media,” Hampson says. “I’m not a geek. I found myself in the computer world through Mac and Apple because they’re well-designed and useable. I’m interested in personal use, and in the ability to make less accessible information more accessible. The ability to get to profound sources of knowledge at our own time or place is a marvelous invention of our society. I can’t imagine anything more important than building portals that enable people to inform themselves and have better lives.
“I would like to see everything online, eventually free,” he says. “I’m passionate about a public free listening library. That’s what I’m undertaking with ‘Song of America.’”
Still, Hampson finds an important place for live concerts. “People should go to concerts to enrich their lives, not because a celebrity is performing or because they seek novelty,” he says. “They need a way to build their own associations.”
Hampson grew up in Spokane, Washington, in a Seventh Day Adventist family, the son of a nuclear engineer and a mother who played piano for a theater group. He describes his two elder sisters as “very musical.”
American music, rather than classical music, was an essential part of his childhood. “There was a lot of church music in our family,” he says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in government from Eastern Washington University in Cheney, he earned a bachelor’s degree in voice performance from Fort Wright College, where he studied with Sister Marietta Coyle, who deflected him from becoming a lawyer.
Hampson lives in New York with his wife, Andrea, a businesswoman, and a partner in the Hampsong Foundation. The couple has four grown children between them. The two work out together on a yoga-based exercise program. Their regimen includes Pilates and gymnastics. One of his favorite books at the moment is David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding’s “Eat This, Not That,” the no-diet weight loss book.
At the end of our conversation, the resilient Hampson responds to my last question with a unique answer. “Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you wish I had?” I inquire. And Hampson shoots back, “My shoe size is 13 D.”
Thomas Hampson, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton, Tuesday, November 17, 8 p.m. “The Song of America Project” in collaboration with the Library of Congress presented by the baritone. $43 to $54. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.