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I Like This Guy a Lot: Thomas Hampson on Gustav Mahler

I recently caught up with Thomas Hampson who was on the road, criss-crossing Europe from recital to recital. He sat on the sofa in his hotel suite, with a mix of the debonair and a bit of the down-home, in a boldly checkered shirt (the color somewhere between amaranth and burgundy) and jeans. When you sit across Hampson, with his robust frame, settled deportment, and the level-headed air, nothing he says strikes you mildly hokey, even if it might read like that in print. [See below.] All of it seems well considered, or else wouldn’t have been said. He does strike me as keenly aware—and cautious—of the possible divergence between an impression given in person and how it comes across to a public. He squelches a brief introductory bit of chatter with faint political overtones saying—not at all verbatim, but in essence—that he better shut up, lest he come across as cockalorum who blathers about things he has no business pontificating about. Below are a few excerpts from the conversation that followed.

Mr. Hampson had a recital the night before in Bayreuth at the Stadthalle, Sunday before that in Heidelberg… the following Monday he was going to be at La Scala. Last month he sang songs from George Crumb’s “American Song Book” at the Library of congress. Later this month, May, Hampson will join the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert on tour with an all-Mahler program of the Fifth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder, which will travel through Basel, (May 12), Baden-Baden (May 13), Vienna (May 15), Berlin (May 19), Dresden (May 21), and Leipzig (May 23). Hampson will follow that up with more Mahler recitals throughout Europe for the rest of the summer.

When I spoke to him, he had come to town for a recital of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Is it Mahler for him everywhere this season?

No, not just Mahler. In Heidelberg it was Schubert Heine songs, for example. But there is always some Mahler on the programs. Sometimes it’s a mixture of Liszt and Mahler. Only tomorrow is it pure Mahler, because Munich loves pure Mahler and I’m apparently known for Mahler here… which I’m doing a lot this year. It was a big winter season of Mahler concerts in sort of every mutation of piano versions and orchestra versions you can imagine. It’s fun. No opera, for six months! Just concerts, he says, and rubs his hands together with contentment.

Does that feel good not to sing opera? Yes, it feels real good. You feel like a musician.

He chuckles, which gives me time to insert the question: “Are you a musician or a singer?” To which his immediate response is hearty, jovial laugh with an edge:

I don’t know, Should I hit you first and then answer?

It’s the old joke, isn’t it? It’s a bad rap for singers, it’s an unfair rap, it’s a stupid rap… But it’s very interesting… I very much consider myself a musician who is a singer. For me to say that I’m a singer, however, does not feel like that means I’m not a musician. So I don’t know really… go with that however you’d like. You can’t be a singer and not be a musician. You could be a musician and not be a singer. It’s like saying: are you an oboist or are you a musician? Are you a violinist or are you a musician? Somehow there is a feeling that if you are a singer that you are conveying something that is extra-musical or that your life is conveying things that are non-musical at the same time, but in fact what we seeing the language we recreate is a musical language. And the musical studies of a singer admittedly can be – don’t have to be but can be – different from a non-singing musician. But it’s the bedrock of what we all do is music.

I’m a little surprised by the answer and wonder if the question has different connotations for singers than it would have for a violinist. My intention is the same insidious intention in either case, the implication being of course—which is why he would have rightly hit me over the head—that a violinist or the just-singer focuses on his subject at the exclusion of music at large. I ask him with genuine incredulity if he had never met singers that were in fact not musicians.

But perhaps Hampson hasn’t warmed up to cheekiness yet, because we get stuck in technicalities on whether one could be a professional singer and not read music and whether one could be a musician without actually being musically trained. And about the difference in jargon between instrumentalists and singers…. like the fact that he might not have an immediate association with the “c-minor trio” of Mozart:

That sort of term doesn’t jazz my bell. I don’t know. If I heard the music, I might go: oh, yes, that one. Oh, yes, that is c-minor. But I just don’t know that nomenclature. Oh, please meet my wife.

It’s a welcome interruption to start down a different path. While his wife and company go down to wait at the bar—Hampson assures them to get done with me quick so he can join them in a bit—I throw something completely different at him:
Do you love Bruckner?

Huh? Do I love what? Bruckner? I do. I do. I love his music, he says, taken a little aback at the question rapidly fired at him as soon as his wife leaves the hotel room. Why do you ask that?

It was a follow up, I say with impertinent tenaciousness… because a just-singer wouldn’t have a lot to do with it, since there’s awfully little to sing in it…

Yes, not a lot to sing in it. But, I’m crazy about Bruckner. I’m crazy about different interpretations of Bruckner. I can’t profess to know a lot of it. If I was going to be a conductor it probably wouldn’t be on my top five list of things to go after… But what I love about Bruckner is the new world about Bruckner-thought that just completely links him, you know… almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Schubert. I think that has been very enlightening. Bruckner used to be a sort of obscure musician’s musician’s kind of music; and with monstrous sounds and so forth. And I think that, starting with Harnoncourt I suppose, though Harnoncourt has taken it to the nth degree… but the last of the great Brucknerians that just had this enormous landscape—I’m thinking of Haitink recordings of Bruckner that are just unbelievable, and then I heard Haitink talk about Bruckner and he talked about Schubert and… hmm, wait… I guess I take all that back…

“Nevermind,” he says with a sort of… adorable, actually, coy shrug. But at least now he likes the questions. “These are easy,” he says about them, “this is great.”

I posit: <Bruckner is a love, Mahler an addiction>

For you? For me? It’s a clever turn, at least. Why not. But Mahler doesn’t register like that anymore, for me. Mahler is kind of a center signpost in my life and my orientation to music, music history… I’ve learned a lot about myself through Mahler’s music, Mahler’s searching for philosophies, questioning, his existential questions, metaphysical questions… are, if you will, rabbit holes that you can go through… I believe Mahler to have essentially ended his life and having his impact as a kind of philosopher, if not outright mystic, himself. And I think trying to define the most influential philosophy in Mahler – ergo: that’s where he’s really to be answered – is a mistake. I think: Yes, he’s Nietzschean. Yes, he’s Schopenhauerean. And yes he’s a natural philosopher, and yes he’s a Christian Mystic and Yes-es, yes-es, yes-es. And all of it boils down to an essential concept of ‘Love is God, God is Love, Life is Love is God’ and it never stops. Take your time, do it right, do it as faithfully as everything you know to be truth and move into the vibrations that’s yours to come. The soul is, for Gustav Mahler, immortal.

And that’s kind of kind of interesting. I don’t think it’s reincarnation, for Mahler. I think it’s just this transcendence of life; it’s more about the responsibility of we who are here. We have our jokes about Mahler talking to plants and not killing flies, but that taken rather more inverted; a panentheism that says that every manifestation of life is a essentially an extension of whatever God is. So rather than God being in nature, in fact it’s the other way around. That everything is a manifestation of the God-force. And this life-force, that any particular living entity inhabits, is eternity. And that the responsibility, respect, and embracing of that—especially form human beings, where the common denominator is Love—in the big Agápe, even Philia sense of love—that’s where I find Mahler sort of settling down. And a lot of metaphors of love and song and life are in his songs. Always sort of moving around… it’s very Walt Whitmanish, really… “Song of Myself” and such… I like this guy a lot. It’s more than an addiction for me.

Sounds much more like a love than an addiction…

Yes. But I look for this level of thought in all the composers and poets. Singing repertoire is very often in these kinds of worlds. It’s not just all sort of… in fact, none of it is, or should be just about: ‘what can I learn that makes me look good or displays my prowess…’ I don’t think that singing is a spectator-activity. We as singers and artists are there to make audible the collective thoughts in whatever symbols and manifestations they come up and from whatever language… about the story of us. People. it’s always about people, and I’m the one that’s supposed to make it audible. I think in any recital, the sooner I can become that doorway that just flapped open, to any particular person’s imagination, at whatever level they’re meeting me in the Schubert-Heine world, or Liszt-Heine, or Lizst-Goethe, or Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or American Songs… whatever that world is that they’re going to, it’s about them. It’s about your reaction to that stuff that I’m singing. I don’t think it’s about a presentation of Tom Hampson and how he can sing. That just doesn’t register with me. And I think the theater is the same way. I think opera is exactly the same way. The energy in an opera house or a concert hall is from the concert hall to the stage. It’s about being at the disposal of what you do.

Now, how well you do that, in what context you do that, and what physical attributes you have, of course you become identified with your own performances. It’s stupid not to be. It’s not some sort of false humility. But if you, as an audience member, are not in the world of Simon Boccanegra quickly, I haven’t done my job right. It’s the same way in a recital. A lot of programming for recitals is about unraveling that process for people. And it’s different in different cultures. It’s different in different contexts, different cities. I like to program pretty specifically. I want to know what kind of people are coming, what kind of program they are used to hearing, and what they aren’t… Very often now, presenters really only want you to just sing things they know will be popular with their public. So if I know you’ve got sort of a middle aged public that adores Schubert, yeah, let’s do Schubert. But I got news for you. If you love Schubert, you’re gonna loooove Mahler.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
T.Hampson / Wiener Virtuosen

Earlier this year Deutsche Grammophon released Hampson’s recording of Des Knaben Wunderhornwith the Wiener Virtuosen, a conductor-less ensemble comprised of principal players of the Vienna Philharmonic, that is roughly the size of the orchestra that these songs would have originally been performed with. [YouTube Video from DG of Hampson on the project here.]

As Charles Downey pointed out reviewing Hampson’s Mahler disc of orchestral songs(Michael Tilson Thomas, SFS Media), “…Hampson tends to luxuriate in his sound too much, and his German pronunciation suffers in comparison with [Christian] Gerhaher.” But then anyone’s German would look sketchy when compared to Gerhaher’s native unaffected perfection… and Hampson’s sung German sounds much like his spoken German: very, very good, just not quite idiomatic. Much more to the point: the singing is wonderful, with a right mix of genteel and grit… never ostentatious, executed with warmth and flexibility. And the accompaniment is as sensitive, detailed, and transparent as any I have heard. That alone would be a worthy reason to add this disc to one’s Mahler collection, however bulging it already it is.

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