Understanding Your Life Through Music: A Mahler Scholar Brings His Passion to DC

Baritone Thomas Hampson discusses performing Gustav Mahler's works.

The music of Gustav Mahler can be a total reawakening at best, a dark and unapproachable frustration at worst.

Known for dense orchestration and powerful themes, the Austrian composer’s symphonies and songs are remarkable for their capacity to simultaneously delight and confound audiences, to obfuscate and enlighten, to present a challenge to listeners unique among the canon. “I don’t think one can deny that it is a very intense evening,” says Thomas Hampson, who, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, brings his rich baritone to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder at the Kennedy Center this week.

The Kindertotenlieder—literally, Songs on the Death of Children—are a set of five pieces set to the poetry of Friedrich Rückert. Mahler handpicked them from the original cycle of 425 poems that Rückert wrote in the year after two of his children died. The subject matter is grim, but Hampson hears something more in the music: “It’s not just an emotional foray into the death of children. It is more a process of coming from the darkness of grief to the lightness of, if not acceptance, at least realization.”
Hampson—described by the New York Times as a “superbaritone [with] dynamic character portrayals and irresistible rapport with audiences”—is known around the world for his scholarship and interpretation of Mahler’s music.

“Mahler is hard work,” he concedes. Asked how the casual listener might approach Mahler, Hampson laughs: “Well, that’s the problem—first you’ve got to stop listening casually. Mahler is an endless subject. Every time I sing his work, I feel as though I have connected to another aspect I once did not know. This man and his music can capture life.”

Hampson’s enthusiasm for his vocation is contagious. He believes passionately in the depth of music and in the ability of symphonies and songs to transport the listener in a way not possible in other artistic media. When asked about the relatively low popularity of Mahler and classical music in general, he’s not short on words: “The problem starts when we imagine a night at the symphony as merely a form of entertainment, comparable to a night at the movies or the basketball game. In the movies, you are rather quickly presented with a set of familiar symbols which prepare you for what is to come. Music, and in particular Mahler, develops rich personal associations, connections between composer and listener through the language of melody, harmony, and rhythm.”

Hampson encourages concertgoers to read the program notes, to study the pieces they’re about to see, and to ready themselves for the unique communion between composer, performer, and listener. “Investigate your life through music and through the work of Gustav Mahler,” he says. “It may be a lot of work at the end of the day, but I promise you that your soul will be fed.”

Hampson will be joined by the NSO under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. The program also includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. Thursday, January 31, at 7 PM (including a postconcert talk featuring Hampson and Slatkin); Friday, February 1, and Saturday, February 2, at 8 PM. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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