It is nearly 50 years since I first heard the wondrous American folk song "Shenandoah." It was not among the songs we sang in grade school back in Milwaukee, because, I now realize, although its melody is straightforward and ravishingly beautiful, it is not without difficulties.
The first person I heard sing it was a black folksinger named Hal Waters, who sang at a club on MacDougal Street when Greenwich Village was full of something called beatniks. Part of the excitement of the time was that you did not applaud by clapping your hands. You snapped your fingers. Talk about cool!!
The gentle sound of Hal Waters' voice has remained with me all these years, but I'm afraid it was effaced Friday night by the great American baritone Thomas Hampson.
Hampson, who will sing John Adams' setting of Walt Whitman's "The Wound Dresser" tonight (Saturday) with the New York Philharmonic, has long been a proselytizer for American song. He will sing the Adams work in a series of concerts across the country in the coming weeks. He has crisscrossed America numerous times in recent years trying to acquaint Americans with a heritage they barely know, let alone value.
Friday night he was interviewed -- with great affability and skill -- at the Lincoln Center branch of Barnes and Noble by Jeff Spurgeon of WQXR, further confirmation of what I wrote the other day about how much greatness is available to New Yorkers for free.
Although Hampson is best known for his powerful portrayals in opera -- in the last few years I have heard him do Eugene Onegin and Simon Boccanegra at the Met, both commandingly -- he has devoted an equal amount of time to the art song. Forgive me. At least in this space let us dispense with the word art in connection with the word song. Either a song has a vitality that sets it beyond categories or it doesn't -- affixing the word art gives it a highfalutin, off-putting quality, especially for someone who is just as eager to hear a good interpretation of "Blue Skies" as he is of "An die Musik.".
Hampson reminisced with Spurgeon about his childhood in Spokane, WA. His family were Seventh Day Adventists because his father felt they treated the arts more seriously than other religions. (My only experience with the Adventists is that they used to run an all-you-can-eat buffet called Green Pastures around the corner from Bloomingdale's -- both the quality and abundance of the food stemmed from some religious holding about the sacred importance of eating, which links them with my own people.)
Hampson's first singing teacher was not an Adventist but a Catholic nun, Sister Marietta, who encouraged the very young Tom to listen to recordings of classical music, which made him rethink his decision to become a lawyer. He spent seven years studying with her. At the end of the interview Spurgeon wisely suggested that we toast Sister Marietta, whose instincts have so enriched us all.
Because he is equally obsessed with poetry Hampson is a natural spokesman for song. Few contemporary singers have recorded as wide a range of work -- from the standards of the German repertory to American works little known but well worth knowing.
As I listened to him speak and thought of the many recordings of his that I own I could only marvel that the ogres who control the classical recording industry have put up so little resistance to financing his journeys into obscure but splendid corners of the musical world.
Over the years I'm afraid he has been unable to shed certain naive precepts. He declared he didn't think people familiar with one another's music could go to war with each other. In 1914 would the hundreds of thousands of young men acquainted with the texts of Heinrich Heine in the haunting melodies of Robert Schumann have refrained from opening fire on comparable numbers of young men if they had known the verse of Paul Verlaine as mesmerizingly set by Gabriel Faure? I doubt it.
Accompanied by his frequent collaborator Craig Rutenberg, Hampson sang three songs. Rutenberg has had eye surgery, which meant one of his eyes bore an odd white patch. First Hampson joked that it was a consequence of telling a soprano she was off pitch, but he then noted Rutenberg plays better with one eye than many pianists do with two.
One of the songs he sang was an 18th century gem by Francis Hopkinson, a friend of George Washington. Another was by Samuel Barber, whose centenary we will celebrate this year. For much of his career Barber labored under a cloud because he refused to work in the then fashionable 12-tone style. No one listens to that music any more and the interest in Barber justifiably continues to grow. He could not have a more eloquent champion than Hampson.
At the end of the program he sang "Shenandoah." Apparently there are 26 verses, of which Hampson only sang a few, ending with an irridescent line in his head voice. It made you realize that folk song -- the utterance of a people rather than a particular composer -- is truly miraculous.
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