Hampsong In America

by Ann M. Colford & r & If Thomas Hampson were simply one of opera's leading baritones, his concert Monday at the Fox would be a coup for the Spokane arts community - and nothing more. But the renowned singer is a native son of the Northwest, a musician who grew into his own artistry here in Spokane, so his visit is a joyous homecoming for both the artist and the community.

"Spokane is just - I love this community so much," Hampson enthused last week. "I love Washington state so much. I'm so proud to be from the Northwest, with its clean air, clean water, good fresh fruit, and open, friendly people."

Monday's benefit recital at the Fox Theater will be the last public event before the venerable Art Deco landmark closes for its much-anticipated renovation and transformation into an up-to-date performing arts space. It's Hampson's first performance in his musical hometown in nearly eight years. The singer spends much of his time in Europe, but he still considers eastern Washington home.

"I still come back to Walla Walla to see Mom," he says. "My driver's license address is still Walla Walla. I'm a Washington state resident, and that's not going to change. Sometimes, when I haven't had that connection and I come back, it's been really a wonderful refocusing for me personally. I don't feel like the prodigal son, but it's a wonderful exercise to clear that channel out."

Born in Indiana, Hampson spent most of his childhood around the Tri-Cities, where his father worked as an engineer at Hanford. After high school at Upper Columbia Academy in Spangle, he began voice studies with Sister Marietta Coyle at Spokane's Fort Wright College. Hampson also studied government at EWU, thinking that he'd like to practice law, but his growing passion for music soon ended any dreams of becoming the next Perry Mason.

While still a teenager, Hampson visited the Fox Theater for a performance by the Spokane Symphony. Although he came from a musical home, that concert sparked his interest in classical music, the story goes, and pointed him in the direction that would define his life's work. It's a plot straight out of a made-for-TV movie, as even Hampson admits.

"Sentimentally it's a great hook," he laughs. "Of course, the real story is the girl who was sitting beside me. But that's a story that will never be told. That would be indiscreet."

Whether singing or speaking, Hampson's voice expands like the vistas of southeastern Washington, sweeping like a southwest wind through the draws and coulees of the Palouse. But the dulcet baritone is just the beginning of his expansiveness. He's a thorough researcher, scholarly and intense, and happy to hold forth on the diverse topics that interest him.

One of those topics is the history of American song, from folk songs to popular songs to the recital pieces he calls American concert song. When Hampson talks about American concert song, he doesn't mean works by popular songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, or the Gershwins; he's referring to songs - often poems set to music - that would have been presented in a concert or recital setting.

This week, Hampson kicked off an 11-city tour called "Song in America" that will stretch over the next year. The project, honoring creativity in America, is a collaboration with the Library of Congress.

"It's an exciting process that's been germinating and gestating for some time," he says. "I have a particular passion for American song and poetry, so I've been working with the Library on their Web site and online resources. The tour became a perfect opportunity for singing the songs that need to be sung."

Hampson has championed American song since the early days of his professional career, singing recitals nearly as often as opera. In 1997, he hosted a series on PBS called I Hear America Singing, named for a famous line from Walt Whitman; the same year, he released a CD of Whitman poems set to music by American composers spanning more than a century. To call the singer a fan of Whitman would be an understatement, he says.

"I'm a disciple of Whitman," he says. "This tour is as much about our poets and our poetic thought as it is about our composers. It's more interesting and edifying, I think, looking at our poetic thought process. America is made up of this fantastic tapestry of stories."

Like many cultural historians, Hampson sees a uniquely American voice emerging in the decades preceding the Civil War, driven largely by the poets, writers and thinkers of Transcendentalism. In later decades, other threads wove into this tapestry of American stories, helping us to know who we are.

"The country is held together by a myriad of stories," Hampson says. "It's about knowledge more than information. It's evidence of every backbone we've ever had, and maybe we need to revisit that."

Like any cultural expression, American song is shaped by the American culture of the moment while helping create the culture of the future. In I Hear America Singing, Hampson called song "the mirror of the nation," a description that still holds.

"I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about our culture in the world," he says. "And how can people know us if we don't know ourselves? There's a lot of really good stuff here. We should all rejoice in what we have."

Which brings us back to the Fox Theater and Monday's recital. While Spokane is not an official stop on the tour, Hampson will perform many of the American songs he's prepared for the tour. He'll begin with some German songs, particularly by Schumann; early American songwriters knew the German works well.

"The Fox is one of the great concert halls," he says. "The acoustics are amazing, and it's so incredibly beautiful. There's definitely a narration going on there, with the murals and the paintings of the icons. We have a jewel of our own mythology right there in the area."

Hampson credits the Spokane arts community with his development as an artist. His performance at the Fox is a gift back to the community to help the local arts continue and flourish.

"I became a human being in Spokane," he states. "I was very involved in the community. The Spokane Symphony and Donald Thulean were fundamental in my psyche. When I was there, there was a really substantial arts and humanities thrust. If Spokane had not been the community it was, I'd be a different Thomas Hampson. Clearly other kids are coming along with the same background and hopes and dreams that I had, so why not give them a leg up?"

Thomas Hampson will perform, accompanied by Wolfran Rieger on piano, at the Fox Theater on Monday, Nov. 21, at 7 pm. Tickets: $50; $100-$500, reserved. Visit www.loc.gov/creativity and www.hampsong.com or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.