It was 10 years ago this month that the Fox Theater, having escaped the wrecking ball, emerged as the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, and began its climb to the summit of cultural life in the Inland Northwest. Playing an important role in this transformation was Thomas Hampson, one of the world’s most celebrated and sought-after singers. Hampson gave one of the first performances in the “new” hall, having flown his accompanist in from Vienna at his own expense.
This weekend’s gala concerts centered on Hampson, but also featured the Spokane Symphony, under the direction of Eckart Preu, as well as the combined choirs of the Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Eastern Washington University Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Kristina Ploeger. They collaborated in a successful program of European opera as well as American art-song and musical comedy.
The first half of the program could serve as a synopsis of the course of opera from W.A. Mozart through Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, to Giacomo Puccini. It was skillfully designed by Preu to showcase equally the abilities of Hampson, the orchestra, the choir, and, not least, the hall, which is a wonder both visually and acoustically. Overtures to two operas by Mozart, “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “The Marriage of Figaro” were paired with arias composed for those operas. Juxtaposing the two arias revealed one of Thomas Hampson’s most remarkable qualities: his ability to act with the voice, imparting a color, a tone, an accent capable of projecting the inner essence of a character. The naively eager Guglielmo in the aria from “Cosi” could easily be distinguished from the pompous, blustery Almaviva of “Figaro” even by one who knew neither opera and listened with eyes closed.
This gift of Hampson’s was even more apparent is the “Song to the Evening Star,” from Wagner’s “Tannhaüser,’ and the “Te Deum” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” Hampson’s vocal type is described as a lyric baritone, and the lyricism that sweetened his voice as he softly intoned the beginning of the Wagner aria was pure magic. In the Puccini segment, however, the sweetness was gone, replaced by the leering snarl of the loathsome Baron Scarpia. This was a master class itself in the art of vocal characterization. It was continued in the second half of the program, which highlighted Hampson’s heroically successful championing of American music in selections from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” and two supreme examples of the art of Cole Porter: “Begin the Beguine” (1935) and, as an encore, “Night and Day” (1932).
One suspects that Hampson dislikes being described as a “crossover” singer, as he sometimes is. To cross over something, there must first be a barrier to be crossed. Hampson’s career has demonstrated that many divisions in music are false, and that, to quote Duke Ellington, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
This flexibility in the soloist was fully equaled by the Spokane Symphony, which, in both accompanying and stand-alone roles, showed itself to be an instrument of great power and refinement. In the Mozart overtures, which demand great virtuosity, especially at the speeds set by Preu, the music flowed and sparkled like champagne. In Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide” (1956) and “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town” (1944), the versatility of the ensemble was truly remarkable. In the “Candide” Overture, Bernstein parodies the very European models we heard earlier in the program, requiring subtle adjustments in tone and characterization. The extracts from “On the Town” are incredibly difficult music (think “You’re the Top,” combined with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), which must be made to seem brash and breezy. The complete success of these performances depended a great deal on the unflappable mastery of veteran percussionist Rick Westrick.
Matching this versatility point for point was the choir, which has reached a very high level of mastery. They achieved terrifying volume and intensity in the Puccini “Te Deum,” embodying the combination of the power of the church with Scarpia’s satanic evil. They also collaborated in what was perhaps the evening’s most breathtaking single moment: a chord at the end of Copland’s “The Boatmen’s Dance” which seemed to die away as slowly as colors do at sunset, reminding us that behind every sound is silence.