Hampson Sings Chicago Songs

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SONGS FROM CHICAGO / BACON: Lingering Last Drops. World, Take a Good Notice. The Last Invocation. On the Frontiers. The Divine Ship. Darest Thou Now, O Soul. Grand is the Seen. PRICE: Song to the Dark Virgin. My Dream. CARPENTER: 4 Negro Songs: 1-3. Gitanjali. BONDS: 3 Dream Portraits. The Negro Speaks of Rivers. CAMPBELL-TIPTON; Elegy / Thomas Hampson, bar; Kuang-Hao Huang, pno / Çedille CDR 90000

Thomas Hampson is, in many ways, the Victor Maurel of our time. Like Maurel, he possesses a modestly-sized lyric baritone with little squillo or “ring” in the high range and a lieder-singer’s sensibilities, yet he has consistently sung Italian opera roles that attract him because of the personalities of the characters, particularly Marcello in La Bohème, Pére Germont in La Traviata, Rodrigo in Don Carlos and the title role in Simon Boccanegra, all of which he excels in. In recent years, debilitating health problems have robbed him of his vocal stamina and, to a lesser extent, his timbre, yet he keeps on performing because he loves it so.

In this new CD he wisely sticks to song literature, where he can communicate effectively without forcing his voice, and in this case the program is extremely interesting. The two composers I was unfamiliar with, Ernest Bacon (1898-1990) and Louis Campbell-Tipton (1877-1921), were local Chicagoans, as were the much better-known John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), while Florence B. Price (1888-1953) was a transplant from Arkansas.

At age 63 there is a bit of an uneven flutter in Hampson’s voice, but it is still a unique and unmistakable instrument, and his powers of interpretation are undimmed, and he now possesses a few lower notes that he did not have earlier in his career. The first series of songs, by Bacon, are based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, a long-time favorite of Hampson’s; the language is resolutely tonal, but Bacon introduces surprisingly jazzy syncopations into “World Take Good Notice,” and the other songs are somewhat interesting musically (particularly the slow “walking” tempo and occasional harmonic tweaks in “On the Frontiers”). Hampson can also still float soft high notes, and his legato and diction remain superb. It also helps that pianist Kuang-Hao Huang is a sensitive and interesting accompanist. The general mood of these songs is reflective, matching the mood of Whitman’s poetry quite well.

The two songs by Price are set to the poetry of Langston Hughes, darling of the Harlem Renaissance who later walked away from it, spending most of his life in menial jobs so that he could write his poetry as he wished. I knew of her instrumental music, particularly the Piano Concerto, but her songs are more tightly constructed, leaning on European classical structure (much more so than William Grant Still) and also resolutely tonal. “My Dream” has a nice, gently rocking rhythm to it and some interesting chord changes.

Carpenter was a somewhat uneven composer, sometimes brilliant (particularly in his jazz-soaked ballet score, Skyscrapers) and sometimes rather pedantic. The three Negro songs (sorry, folks, but the term Negro is not racist, any more than Caucasian is) are more ragtime and minstrel-song-influenced but charming nonetheless. Despite his lineage, dating back to the days of the Pilgrims (he was related to John Alden), he greatly admired black culture and was not at all trying to be condescending in these settings of Hughes poems. I felt, however, that pianist Huang could have imparted a somewhat looser rhythm in “The Cryin’ Blues,” as Hampson does. “Jazz-Boys,” on the other hand, has a nice swing to it.

Margaret Bonds, a pupil of Florence Price, was actually a more original composer; her melodic structures are unusual and unpredictable, sprinkled with unusual harmonic shifts and surprise endings. “Dream Variation” is one of the few times on this disc where I felt that Hampson could have imparted a looser feel to the rhythm, but his loving interpretation of the words is just fine, and he makes up for this with a particularly loose performance of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Campbell-Tipton was, it seems a bit of an enigma,* leaving Chicago at a relatively early age (he only lived to age 44) to settle in Europe and write smaller-scale works. His Elegy, as described in the booklet, is one of those “rare private chapters of creativity often found in the buried history of American song.” The settings of Rabindrath Tagore’s poetry by Carpenter are lovely if a bit less original than the Hughes settings, but Hampson makes a mini-production of them, opening and closing the series with spoken poetry readings. In addition, he imparts such deep meaning to the words that he rivets your attention, particularly in “On the day when death will knock at thy door” with its somber, “Death and the Maiden”-type piano chords behind him. In his hands, this little song cycle is miraculously elevated from the realm of conventional tonality and melodic structure to the level of great art. It’s difficult to describe; you simply have to hear it to understand what magic he makes of it.

*Jan Cook, a descendant of Louis Campbell-Tipton, sent me the following information on him:

He was born in 1869, not 1877, and in 1910 married Marion Smith at the Strand, London, England. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The following link is to an article published in Music Magazine that supports the 1869 birth year and gives some further information on him: https://books.google.com/books?id=dG8PAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA192&lpg=PA192&dq=%22louis+campbell+tipton%22&source=bl&ots=V7zQJkU9Qn&sig=NzNwRO5nx7ZP_ytupbqt7RkwIFg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAzgUahUKEwjf777Muu_IAhWEbSYKHfptBlM#v=onepage&q=%22louis%20campbell%20tipton%22&f=false

There is no question, in my mind, that Hampson’s art has deepened even further with age despite the vagaries of his voice production. There are other baritones with far “greater” voices who I would listen to if I happened to be in the area, but Thomas Hampson is one artist I would crawl over broken glass to hear. He’s that great.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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