Thomas Hampson Matches Mahler with George Crumb

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Once based in Europe, American baritone Thomas Hampson recently moved back to New York. As he told me in an interview last year, the change didn’t signify too much as he already felt like he was more or less living in the States. That was during a time, of course, when Hampson was as ubiquitous in New York as dirty-water hot dogs and Greek diner coffee cups: Last April, he was ensconced in the Met’s final production of Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, opposite Angela Gheorghiu and James Valenti while also working with the New York Philharmonic as its first Artist-in-Residence and Scholar-in-Residence. We heard him sing in Italian, English, German and—in the Phil’s Contact! series—Hebrew.

But all good things must end—at least temporarily. This year Hampson has been keeping his European dance card full with only a few brief encounters in New York. Under Alan Gilbert’s baton, he sang Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with the Phil in January. That same month, he performed an intimate concert in the Greene Space. Following tonight’s recital in Washington, D.C. and its repeat tomorrow in New York with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, however (and excepting a recital in Winona, MN in July) we don’t see much of Hampson in the States until September when he heads to San Francisco for the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier.

Striking, then, that what we do hear from Hampson tomorrow at Alice Tully Hall isn’t more Mahler, whose death-centenary is being observed this year in no small part by Hampson: He recently recorded Des Knaben Wunderhorn for Deutsche Grammophon and has been singing most of the composer’s major song cycles in Europe. Nor will Hampson be turning towards the works of Richard Strauss, as he does next week with Renée Fleming and Christian Thielemann in Berlin. Rather, we get a slice of the baritone’s passion project, “Song of America,” with selections from George Crumb’s six American Songbooks. The Mahler year is big, but this may be Hampson’s most important recital this year.

It’s a harmonic convergence right up both artists’ alleys. Of Crumb’s work, Hampson says “He has found an utterly original and moving way of encapsulating in musical tones, sounds, and sonic landscapes his powerful emotional response to those often simple musical narratives.” The core of familiar tunes, from Civil War anthems to African-American spirituals, remains in Crumb’s work, but the musical structures are broken down and rebuilt to create haunting buildings to hold these vibrant musical bodies.

For all of Hampson’s myriad talents, he may be at his best with the American Songbook. One wishes that, even in the midst of celebrating a titan of the rep such as Mahler, he could be performing Crumb’s works around Europe this year in lieu of Das Lied von der Erde. With the recent attention in our country over our president’s birth certificate and a real-estate tycoon looking to enter the 2012 electoral race, we’ll take all the goodwill cultural ambassadors we can get.