Monday, January 08, 2007

affirmations and Thomas Hampson

Baritone Thomas Hampson was the soloist in three performances of songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn this weekend. He also gave a masterclass on Saturday on Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer, with several brave wind players adapting the vocal lines to their instruments. These kind of cross-disciplinary master classes are something I haven't seen done anywhere else, and they have been some of the most interesting I've witnessed. Last season Barbara Bonney gave a class on Schubert lieder, and earlier this fall pianist Robert Levin coached the Mozart wind concertos.

Since instrumentalists don't normally study art songs, Hampson had plenty to teach about the phrasings, articulation, and diction a singer would bring to them. He has researched and written quite a bit about these songs and the German Romantic poets, and collected a lot of his work on his website Each of the four Songs of a Wayfarer paints a scene in the life of a young, apparently rejected lover; he encouraged us, though, to not read them as literal descriptions but as metaphoric realizations of emotions and experiences. Just as a flower or a bird can exist on several levels, romantic love and death can mean much more than the literal acts of loving or dying.

It all left my head spinning somewhat. In the last song, "Die zwei blauen Augen", Hampson talked about these lines of text:

Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht,
In stiller Nacht wohl uber die dunkle Haide;
Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt,
Ade, Ade!
Mein Gesell war Lieb' und Liede!

I went out in the still of night,
at dead of night across the gloomy heath.
No one said goodbye to me,
goodbye, goodbye;
my companions were love and grief.

One of the levels of meaning Hampson talked about here was the loss of outside affirmation - the poet looks for some token sign of warmth, a farewell gesture of friendship, and there is nothing. This related this to the truth we all discover at some point, that we can't depend on friends or critics for our sense of confidence and meaning. The whole cycle can be read as a kind of death to youthful ways of being, both the joyful innocence and the painful sorrows of being naive and emotionally vulnerable. These are incredibly sad songs, and yet they hint at a way of being that is not so dependent on the outside world for affirmation, and perhaps not so prone to suffering.

As performers we get this lesson every time a review comes out in the newspaper, and we find that we can't believe the praise or the criticism. It's not just that no one ever built a statue of a critic - we can't turn the performance into a statue either, a discrete object to examine and analyze. To the extent that it is successful, it has to remain a subjective, personal experience, both for the performer and the listener.

Still, it was nice to read a complimentary review by Lawrence Johnson in today's Miami Herald. I think Thomas Hampson deserves all the praise we can give him, even if it's all ephemeral!

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