American art song — a half-undiscovered, half-buried genre that is nevertheless a vital part of the nation’s culture — is more than
250 years old, going back to a time before the birth of the country and the birth of Beethoven.
It was in the 1750s that Francis Hopkinson, later to be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” the song that opened Thomas Hampson’s “Song of America” recital Wednesday at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.
The baritone, a valued fixture in top opera houses of the world, has been a major force in the scholarship and performance of American Lied. His current recital tour is part of a “Song of America” project in collaboration with the Library of Congress.
Hampson, in great voice and succeeding with impossible pianissimos trailing off into silence seamlessly, covered the range from the 18th century to such wet-ink works as Richard Danielpour’s “Shiloh” and Michael Tilson Thomas’ “At Ship’s Helm.”
The emotional range, too, was vast, from dramatic Ives and bouncy Copland works to Paul Bowles’ songs to text by Tennessee Williams to Bernstein’s musical tsunami of “To What You Said.”
“Song of America” is so varied and all-encompassing that Hampson at times substitutes “Song in America” when he talks about the field. The Library of Congress is in the process of setting up an enormous collection of music, text, history, dissertations — laid out in a timeline — coming to www.songofamerica.net.
There is no better proof of the melting-pot nature of the genre than Hampson’s extraordinary accompanist, Wolfram Rieger of Regensburg and Munich.
Not only did he play with verve and beauty, but Rieger’s Ives, Edward MacDowell, and Virgil Thomson were as “American” as the interpretation by Hampson of Spokane, Wash.
Speaking of American excellence, Hampson’s recital marked the opening of the 30th season of Ruth Felt’s San Francisco Performances.