Baritone Thomas Hampson's scope, artistry stunning at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert
As Thomas Hampson neared the end of his part in Brahms' glorious "Ein Deutsches Requiem" he intoned, "Behold, I show you a mystery."
It was hard for me to not take these words at face value even in the midst of a work of profound spirituality and one set to biblical verse. Friday night with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the American baritone offered his own mystique: a singer of uncommon and unyielding artistry.
Like tenor Placido Domingo's, Mr. Hampson's voice is just as capable and arresting as it has been his entire career, his oaken hue just as mystifying in its attractiveness. It's the sort of voice you'd like to hear all night long.
At Heinz Hall, that's exactly what happened when Mr. Hampson pulled the orchestral version of a doubleheader. Under the direction of PSO music director Manfred Honeck, he soloed in Dvorak's "Biblical Songs" (hard to miss the theme to this concert) then returned for the second half to star in "A German Requiem."
That's nothing extraordinary for an opera singer, but then again, you almost never see a soloist cross the invisible wall of intermission. Actually, it says less about a performer's stamina than his desire, and Mr. Hampson always goes the extra step, whether in preparation or in outreach (his Hampsong Foundation). Or in this case, mastering the diction of a language not a large part of the standard rep: Czech.
Mr. Hampson's treatment of selections from Dvorak's lesser-known song set revealed a sensitivity to the composer's culture as much as composition. Tinged with folk qualities, Dvorak doesn't ask, nor did the baritone force, for drama in the singing. That came in the orchestration, expertly brought out by Mr. Honeck. For all the focus on his Austrian roots, he has a family heritage in Bohemia as well, and he always has something special to add to Dvorak. Musicians such as flutist Lorna McGhee and clarinetist Michael Rusinek -- as well as entire string sections -- gave this work apt freshness.
Just as someone whispering in a quiet room sounds louder than talking, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh created a dominating presence with the most tender of phrasing. This is Mr. Honeck's doing, brought to fruition by director Betsy Burleigh, and it worked wonders with the sentiment of the work. Brahms wished to compose a work that comforted the living rather than bless the dead, and Mr. Honeck's emphasis on the soft and serene quality of the chorus accomplished that.
So did his choice of Chen Reiss, a light soprano, to sing the fifth movement in which Brahms seems to have invoked his own mother, who had recently passed away (the piece premiered in 1868). Mr. Honeck wanted a singer to be angelic, and I understand that, but I wanted a heavier sound that would be more indicative of an older woman. Ms. Reiss was wonderful, however, singing with crystalline beauty.
This was still Mr. Hampson's time to shine, but he pulled back to be in balance and harmony with the orchestra and choir. The result was no less intense than had a lesser singer belted out.
But that's his secret.
The program repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 Sunday.
First Published February 4, 2012 12:00 am