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Multi-faceted Hampson shows a new side in Munich

By Tess Crebbin / April 15, 2004

The celebrated American baritone Thomas Hampson was treading new ground this week in Munich, Germany. For the first time, Vienna-based Hampson was not only singing but also hosting a major European music event when he lead audiences through the traditional annual Easter Concert of the ARD at the Prinzregententheater in Munich on April 12th.

The ARD is one of Germany’s largest public television channels and its tradition is to put on a lavish annual Easter concert with live broadcast, for which some of the most renowned names in classical music have been appearing in the past. The idea of the concert, originally conceived by Lorin Mazeel and his German wife, actress Dietlinde Turban, is to bring classical music closer to a wide audience.

Under the direction of its Lettland born conductor Mariss Jansons, the Symphony Orchestra of the ARD’s local channel, Bayerischer Rundfunk, this time performed various classical pieces related to dance.

"For this, we wanted to play classical music pieces that are related to dance and also include some dance performances," said one of the organizers. "That way, the public could really enjoy excerpts of the best we have to offer in the field of classical music."

American-born choreographer John Neumeier, of the Hamburg State Ballet, was also in attendance and has contributed two choreographed pieces to the sold-out event. Dvorak’s Slavic Dance was performed by two soloists from Neumeier’s State Ballet in Hamburg, one of which is the American dancer Elisabeth Loscavio, formerly of the San Francisco Ballet Company.

Host Thomas Hampson performed Mahler’s Rheinlegendlichen from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" and Korngold’s "Mein Sehnen, Mein Waehnen". His presence in Munich attracted the attention of the national and international press who were crowding to the rehearsals.

"I have never actually hosted such an event in Europe," Hampson said in Munich. "The idea was born after I did a two-part German television documentary of Schubert’s Winterreise, where I not only performed all the Lieder but also commented on each one. This was very successful and when I was asked to host this event, I decided to give it a go, although it is a little problematic doing it all in German since German is not my first language."

Hampson also spoke of the technical difficulty of going immediately from singing to his hosting duties and vice versa.

" I enjoy this challenge enormously, despite the intrinsic difficulties involved in such a task," he said. "I feel an inherent need to bring the wonders of classical music closer to audiences everywhere. In today’s time, which is characterised by so much trouble, music is an art form that truly transcends all differences and unites people from all backgrounds. Music does not distinguish between races or nationalities. My hobbies are poetry and symbolism because music is filled with symbolism, just like poetry is. And that is why music related to the real kind of life that is going on underneath our masks. I feel that we are all essentially the same. We all have fears, we all love someone, and we all have problems. What you see on the outside is not really what is going on. There is so much happening beneath the surface and especially classical music can unite us all in getting beyond what is visible to the eye. That is why it is so sad that classical music as an art form is getting increasingly less attention in today’s fast-paced lived modern life. I hope people enjoyed this combination of my hosting and singing. We may have found yet another way to bring the wonder of classical music closer to the hearts of a wider audience."

Although he has never had any formal acting or hosting training, Hampson feels that his love for music and his inborn need to share it with others is as good a qualification as any. Since the American is in the enviable position that everyone likes him, he was a great success as a host. With just the right mixture of humour, authority and stage presence, he was able to make the audience hang on every word. Capable of nearly accent-free German, the baritone displayed his language talents even further when he recited a passage from Pushkin in Russian, followed by its German translation. Concert-goers’ responded enthusiastically.

"When I talk about a music piece, I really want people to understand what makes it special and beautiful. For instance, I am a big Mahler fan. One of my most wonderful experiences was at a small music festival in Attersee, Austria, last year, where I performed Mahler songs and then spoke at length about the composer and his music. Classical music is very much alive and still greatly relevant to us. I am at my happiest if I can truly build a bridge between the past, where the composers lived, and our modern time."

Considered to be one of the best baritones of our time, Thomas Hampson’s voice has been compared to liquid gold and was described by one critic as being "too beautiful to put into words". Yet, unlike some other performers at the top of their field, he accepts his talent with humility and sees himself merely as being a bridge between the composer and the audience.

"There is a German voice teacher, Horst Guenther, who got me started way back when. He is 92 now and he still comes to some of my concerts. If there is something he doesn’t like, he tells me so and then we sit together and work on it."

There may not be too much to work on, voice-wise, these days, since Hampson can even pull off the most difficult roles, like Simon Boccanegra, in a way that leaves his audiences spellbound. But perhaps just as important as the quality of the Baritone’s voice is his willingness to be a pioneer in an art form where pioneers are few and far between these days.

Indeed, his understanding of music goes far beyond the call of duty for an operatic singer. Even the conductor, Mariss Jansons, allowed Hampson during rehearsals to address the orchestra directly and share with them the background of the song Rheinlegendchen, explaining precisely what the composer had meant to express and in which mood the piece should be played. The two men, both of who are at the top of their respective fields, enjoy working with each other enormously.

"I just love Mariss Jansons," Hampson said in Munich. "I would do anything for him." At the end of a long day of rehearsals, they goofed around for the photographer and stood hugging each other and entertaining the onlookers.

The sold-out ARD Easter Concert was broadcast live, on April 12th, 2004, on ARD Television throughout all European countries that have German cable. The programme was as follows: Baritone and Host: Thomas Hampson. Conductor: Mariss Jansons. Violin: Franz Peter Zimmermann. Choreography: John Neumeier. Performers: Symphony Orchestra and Mixed Choir of the Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Weber: Aufforderung zum Tanz

Kodaly: Doppeltanz aus Kallo

Mahler: Rheinlegendchen from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Rimsky-Korsakov: Hummelflug for Choir (a Capella)

Dvorak: Slawischer Tanz op 72 No 7

Mozart: Rondo C Major for Violin and Orchestra KV 373

De Falla: Danzza Final from the "Drei Spitz Suite"

Tschaikowski: Valse Scherzo op 34 for Violin and Orchestra

Strawinski: "Hoellentanz" from "Der Feuervogel"

Korngold: "Mein Sehnen, Mein Waehnen" from "Die tote Stadt"

Strauss: Walzerfolge No 1 from "Rosenkavalier"

"I think it was a very good cross-section of all things classical, ranging from ballet to large orchestra pieces to a rare a Capella performance of "Flight of the Bumblebee", said Dr. Andrea Wolowic, an Austrian who is in charge of public relations for the orchestra, following the immense success of the event.

"It was a very rounded performance that showed the artistic unity of the orchestra and the solo performers. There were a lot of young people in the audience and I think they enjoyed this glimpse of a cross-section of classical music through the times, ranging from the 18th century to the 20th century. We were able to also show different cultures, performing such popular classical pieces like Mozart’s and Rimski-Korsakov’s while also introducing the public to lesser known composers, such as Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) and his Doubledance from Kallo."

The Hungarian composer, who used to walk through small Hungarian villages with his friend Bartok in order to find folk songs he could use for his classical music, is best known as a chorus composer. He wrote his doctoral dissertation about folk songs and was a worldwide authority on musical training for young people, having been one of the first to prove that young students who regularly sing classical music tend to perform better in all school subjects than their non-singing counterparts. His music at the concert was extremely well received, with several audience members asking to find out further details about the composer.

The orchestra’s general manager, Dr Thomas Schmitt-Ott, believes that Kodaly's music is almost tailor made for his orchestra’s chorus. "We have one of the best choruses in Germany," he said, "and the Kodaly pieces, which are immensely moving but very difficult to perform, also because they are all in Hungarian, are a challenge that our chorus enjoys enormously. Kodaly, who together with Bartok is one of the most important Hungarian composers of the last century, is not being performed as often as people would like to see him, precisely because there are not too many choruses capable of mastering the inherent difficulties of his music. So, one thing we would be really interested in, now that the concert has been such a success, is to perhaps consider a tour with chorus, performing Kodaly."

The idea of choreographed dance performances, and especially the physical presence of dance legend John Neumeier, was a joint idea of Korbinian Meyer, who oversaw the event for the television station, Mariss Jansons and Dr Schmitt-Ott. "I consider Jansons one of the best conductors for Dvorak, because he has such an intrinsic understanding of the composer’s roots," Schmitt-Ott said. "This, coupled with the choreography of Neumeier, made for a truly breathtaking performance."

Neumeier, who is known for his ability to break new ground, interpreted the "Hungarian Dance" in a most modern manner. Aside from all the classical dance movements, the piece involved from more unusual moves, such as the dancer pulling himself up by his own hair, boxing into the air at an unseen opponent, or exasperatingly stumping out an imaginary cigarette.

Audiences were thrilled by the presence of the master himself, who, at the end of the performance, came onto stage. Milwaukee-born Neumeier runs the Hamburg State Ballet and is considered to be one of the last living legends of classical dance. Backstage after the concert, it was Neumeier who was the most beleaguered, with fans rarely getting more than two sentences in before someone else arrived with a photo request.

"It was an incredible experience for me," said one member of the audience, "not only to watch a marvellous classical concert but also have the privilege of seeing an excerpt of Neumeier’s work. He is still among the best that the world of dance has to offer."

One young lady, all of 22 years old, put it this way: "You know, I usually never watch classical concerts. Never. But when I happened to sit in on rehearsals, by accident, for a few hours, I was completely spellbound. Then I knew that I just had to attend the concert. I enjoyed it enormously."



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