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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Thomas Hampson shares history of America one song and poem at a time

Thomas Hampson returns to Spokane for the West Coast premier of his new show, “Song of America: Beyond Liberty,” at the Fox tonight. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Baritone Thomas Hampson had heard, and even asked, the questions countless times: Who’s the American Brahms? The American Schubert? What about the American DeBussy?

But Hampson, who hails from the Tri-Cities and went to school in Spokane, realized long ago that those were the wrong questions to be asking.

“What I am so impressed with in the history of American culture is this ability to understand five- and 10-year segments of our history seen through the eyes of our poets and composers,” he said.

America of 1850, for instance, is not the same as America of 1870 or 1920. America of 1930 isn’t the same as 1945 isn’t the same as 1995, so on and so forth.

“Dropping that needle, whenever we do that, I think, is a fantastic experience for the listener,” Hampson said.

In “Song of America: Beyond Liberty,” Hampson does just that, highlighting moments that shaped America as marked by poems, songs and monologues from some of the country’s most notable figures.

He’ll present the show, which features pianist Lara Downes and the Beyond Liberty Players, at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Friday.

This performance marks the West Coast premiere of the show, which first bowed in August at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.

Hampson has always enjoyed classic song or what has been called art song. In other words, poems that inspire musicians set to music.

Poetry, Hampson said, is there to enliven a person’s life and realizations. Therefore, when a composer is inspired by a poem, the work they create as a result expresses that “emotional landscape” in a musical language.

“The phenomenon is literally words that stand as a metaphor for experience inspiring music as a language to capture for three, five minutes a story of who we are as people,” Hampson said. “That story is going to be coming from various cultures and various times.

“Song of America: Beyond Liberty” features the work of composers including Stephen Foster, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives and writers including Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes.

Though in the works long before, Hampson’s “Song of America” project officially launched in 2009 and includes, which features extensive collections of profiles of poets and writers, composers and songs.

If you have a few minutes (or hours) to spare, there is also an incredibly thorough timeline showing important moments from the history of America, beginning in 1750 when “The Beggar’s Opera,” a ballad opera by English poet and dramatist John Gay, was first heard in America and ending, for now, with the death of poet Mary Oliver earlier this year.

“Beyond Liberty” adds a theatrical component to the “Song of America” project. During the show, Hampson will tell stories, sing and give background information on the pieces the audience will hear.

“I draw it up in a package,” he said. “This isn’t a recital. I call it a one-person show in which I’m the connecting material.”

From 3-7 p.m. on Friday, Hampson will welcome area teachers to the free Song of America Teacher Workshop, co-sponsored by the Spokane Symphony and Hampson’s Hampsong Foundation.

Caroline Heaton, associate professor of voice at the University of Michigan; Susan Key, musicologist, former high school teacher, and executive director of the Star Spangled Music Foundation; and Emery Stephens, visiting assistant professor of voice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and former middle school teacher, will conduct the workshop.

During the workshop, teachers will use hands-on activities, interactive presentations and live music to explore topics including Native American culture, early American history, the Civil War and African American history, especially during the 20th century.

The workshop, held at the Eric A. Johnston Auditorium at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, 2316 W. First Ave., includes two tickets for each participant to “Song of America: Beyond Liberty.”

The educational component has always been a big part of the Hampsong Foundation. After completing a 13-week radio program called “Song of America” for WFMT in Chicago in October 2011, Hampson was invited to participate in a variety of education symposiums.

He quickly realized he preferred to teach teachers, especially non-music teachers, how they could incorporate American song into their lessons.

The “Song of America” website now features a variety of lesson plans, including “Emily Dickinson and Nature: Personifying the Seasons,” “Experiencing the Battle of Bunker Hill through Music” and “Langston Hughes in the Jazz Age: Connecting to the Legacy of the Underground Railroad,” and other resources for educators.

There’s no political message in “Beyond Liberty.” Instead, Hampson said it’s all about knowing who we are.

“I’m very proud that this has been embraced in the studies of American music now in my lifetime to say ‘We must look at our creative experiences in this country, one, uniquely to our country, two, that it is probably going to have significant differences one epoch to the other,’ what I call 10- or 15-year slices of American culture,” he said. “We have many wonderful, iconic things that brand America and are very good but we don’t tell our own story enough.”