Hampson brings intense advocacy to Adams’ “Wound Dresser,” American song

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Hampson performed JOhn Adams' "The Wound Dresser" and American songs Sunday afternoon at New World Center.

Thomas Hampson performed JOhn Adams’ “The Wound Dresser” and American songs Sunday afternoon at New World Center.

American baritone Thomas Hampson has long been a champion of the art song repertoire. In the course of a major career of over three decades on the world’s operatic stages, Hampson has regularly given vocal recitals, eschewing popular arias in favor of lieder and rarely performed vignettes. In recent seasons, his “Songs of America” tours and recordings have brought welcome attention to the contributions of homegrown composers to classical vocal music.

On Sunday afternoon Hampson brought a sampling from the spectrum of American song and a major vocal-orchestral work by John Adams to the New World Center in Miami Beach and, despite traffic snarls caused by the Miami International Boat Show, he drew a sizable and engaged audience.

He opened with “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” a salon ballad and the earliest American song on record, written in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson, a polymath who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In superb form, Hampson’s warm, resonant baritone and innate feeling for the idiom were entrancing.  With the audience in the palm of his hand, he launched into a rousing version of “The Dodger” from Aaron Copland’s 1950 collection of Old American Songs. When latecomers were seated between selections, Hampson quipped “refugees from the boat show.”

The mood turned serious with three songs by Charles Ives from the era of World War I. “The Things Our Fathers Loved” was a typically iconoclastic Ives mashup of marches, hymns and parlor tunes. In “Tom Sails Away,” a simple vocal line is supported by harmonically ambivalent keyboard murmurs. “In Flanders Field” contrasts the once beautiful poppy fields with the multitudinous crosses of the dead. Hampson’s superbly clear diction, attention to dynamics and impassioned advocacy mirrored the songs’ uneasy contrast of patriotism and tragedy.

Jennifer Higdon’s song cycle Civil Words was written for Hampson to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. (Hampson premiered the work last week at Carnegie Hall.) Best known for her instrumental scores, Higdon’s work channels American folk traditions through a classical lens.

Settings of texts by parents of soldiers, Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Reverend William Cullen Bryant’s eulogy for the fallen leader recall art songs by Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. While the cycle does not rise to the level of those masters’ best, Higdon has written a fine piece with a spicy touch of chromaticism seasoning the homespun melodies. Wolfram Rieger was the master of the Higdon’s abrupt changes of meter, lending Hampson equally expressive pianistic support.

Following intermission, Hampson was joined by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the New World Symphony for Adams’ The Wound Dresser, a setting of excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps. This is a score like no other by Adams. Instead of insistent minimalism, soft string fragments set the mood for vocal arioso to Whitman’s description of comforting wounded and dying soldiers in hospitals around Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. Whitman’s texts are graphic and Adams’ music is appropriately intense but, except for some climaxes, mostly quiet, gentle and poignant.

This is a great score, perhaps a late twentieth-century classic. Now stentorian, then dulcet, Hampson imbued Whitman’s imagery and the lyrical vocal writing with understated emotion. His voicing of  “Come sweet death, come quickly” was chilling. With outstanding violin and trumpet solos, Tilson Thomas (long an Adams advocate) led a luminous performance, the final edgy blues fade out perfectly synched.

Unfortunately, the decision was made to accompany The Wound Dresser with multimedia projections of graphic photos of Civil War dead and injured with maimed limbs and skulls. The performance was not enhanced but diminished by this distracting video counterpoint, which was unfair to composer, performers and listeners alike. Audiences need to be allowed to grasp contemporary works without such unnecessary adornment. Adams’ powerful score speaks clearly and eloquently in its own voice.

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Mon Feb 16, 2015
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