Hampson brings swagger, sensitivity to American songs with CSO

Fri Jan 11, 2019 at 2:44 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Thomas Hampson performed American songs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One can’t say the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is overstaying its welcome this new year.

Following this week’s first program of 2019, the orchestra departs for a five-city, 11-concert Asian tour, not to return until mid-February.

Yet if Thursday night’s concert, led by Bramwell Tovey, proved mixed overall, the centerpiece was rare and rewarding, with a generous set of American songs performed by Thomas Hampson.

There is no finer advocate nor any living artist more committed to the cause of American song than the celebrated baritone from Elkhart, Indiana. Amid his teeming discography, Hampson has released 15 discs of American vocal repertoire, including his most recent, “Songs from Chicago” on the Cedille label. In addition to his concerts showcasing a vast range of homegrown music, through his Hampsong foundation and Song of America website, Hampson continues the good fight, advocating for the nation’s rich yet still far-too-neglected legacy of vocal music.

In his first CSO appearance in 12 years, Hampson offered a nicely varied set, moving from lighter material through to a trio of war-related settings that reflected the CSO’s seasonal theme marking the Armistice centennial.

The sole clinker was the opening item, John Adams’ fussy arrangement of Charles Ives’ “At the River.” Hampson started off with some tonal dryness here, unaided by the hectoring vocal line.

The singer was soon back on track in three excerpts from Copland’s Old American Songs, bringing his easy command, natural charm and humor to these populist selections.

Hampson invested “Simple Gifts” with tender sincerity and a striking freedom of phrasing and rubato. While he artfully negotiated the high notes in “The Boatman’s Dance,” his hearty swagger was delightful, complete with drawled Yankee R’s. The singer’s storytelling skills were manifest in a characterful take on “The Golden Willow Tree,” rendered with impressive agility, though he was occasionally buried by Tovey’s souped-up accompaniment.

Music of William Grant Still gave the soloist a respite, with In Memoriam: For Coloured Soldiers Who Died for Democracy making an apt prelude to the more somber final songs. Still’s six-minute tone poem is cast in the form of a lyrical idyll with elegiac English horn solos. While it’s good to hear any music by the African-American composer performed by the CSO, the score is largely cast in Still’s Gershwin Lite style and doesn’t plumb the tragedy or valedictory expression that its title would indicate. Nor did Tovey’s direction do the music any favors, with the overscored final bars miles over the top.

More successful was the conductor’s arrangement of Walter Damrosch’s “Danny Deever.” Here Hampson’s narrative abilities brought both intimacy and cumulative dramatic impact to Kipling’s ballad of the ill-fated English soldier.

Hampson premiered Michael Daugherty’s Letters from Lincoln a decade ago and this song cycle, set to the 16th president’s writings, remains one of Daugherty’s finest inspirations. While the composer takes some small liberties with the text of Lincoln’s famous “Letter to Mrs. Bixby,” Hampson’s stoic sensitivity conveyed the heartfelt feeling and remarkable yet simple eloquence of Lincoln’s words.

John Corigliano’s “One Sweet Morning,” made an apt and hopeful coda, envisioning a world with no more war. Again, Tovey failed to keep the volume down, burying his soloist in the middle section. Still Hampson was able to convey the gentle optimism of the Yip Harburg text, and Corigliano’s fragile, bird-like rising line.

The singer received warm applause for his vivid and sensitive artistry but, also, no encore of “Shenandoah.” 

Bramwell Tovey conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is one work that needs no introduction. So it was hard to understand why Tovey was asked to provide one, though his knowledge and affection for the work was manifest in his witty and charming verbal program note.

Oddly, wit and charm were qualities sorely lacking in the performance that followed. Tovey led a raucous reading of Elgar’s kaleidoscopic musical portraits in which a kind of literal heaviness predominated, the British conductor leaning mainly on volume and bombast. With inattentive balancing, there was little delicacy or sparkle in “Dorabella,” and zero distanced mystery in Lady Lygon’s variation. Tovey started “Nimrod” with aptly hushed strings, yet the stodgy tempo and unfocused approach failed to evoke the requisite nostalgic ache and nobilmente. When Elgar’s delightful work seems twice as long as usual, we have a problem, Houston.

The evening began with Charles Ives’ Variations on “America.” William Schuman’s 1963 orchestration is as quirky and subversive as Ives’ original for organ, and Tovey’s unsubtle style was here more on point. The conductor led a robust, boldly colored performance that brought out the strangenesses of this confection—the crunching, bitonal dissonance, dark-hued brass against col legno strings, and the sashaying flamenco variation, complete with maracas and tambourine.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Hampson brings swagger, sensitivity to American songs with CSO”

  1. Posted Jan 11, 2019 at 5:00 pm by Tod Verklärung

    One wonders what is the justification for bringing Bramwell Tovey to conduct the CSO, when so many fine young conductors, many of them female, don’t get the chance. In some seasons it seems as though the guest conductor roster has been drawn from the AARP membership list.

  2. Posted Jan 13, 2019 at 12:29 pm by Rick

    Aside from his “swagger,” Hampson also displayed an excellent command of a new skill for vocalists – a remarkably graceful swiping motion to advance the pages on his tablet.

    And actually, I found the “Variations” moved along much more quickly than I remembered. But then I must be a sucker for “volume and bombast” and am certainly a part of “the AARP membership list” which some would like to hurry on to the gas chambers to make way for the young and the female.

  3. Posted Jan 13, 2019 at 2:28 pm by Mary Goetsch

    Elgar “missing wit and charm…” is the critic kidding? I found the performance thrilling, from CSO carefully crafted tonal contrasts between sections. Even in the dark, I followed the list. The last section (Elgar’s tribute to himself) was truly live as opposed to a dead CD recording- I believe it was the 32-foot organ pipes which sounded a wonderful rumble and blended in at perfect volume. Bravo! Forget the professional critics.

  4. Posted Jan 15, 2019 at 6:44 am by Tod Verklärung


    I am part of the same advanced group as you. I don’t want either of us (or anyone else) to come to an early demise, and certainly not in the ghastly destination you suggested. Unfortunately, there are numerous conductors who are not senior citizens, many of whom are female, who are making a mark in Europe and elsewhere in the USA. We don’t hear them in Chicago and it is our loss. If you want a list I’ll provide it. YouTube provides the evidence of what we are missing.

  5. Posted Jan 16, 2019 at 9:12 pm by Alexander Platt

    Once upon a time at the CSO, it would have gone without question that this program would have been led by an American conductor — man or woman, rising-star, elder-statesman, or mid-career. So sadly symbolic of what’s really going on in this business these days.

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