Thomas Hampson, the pursuit of excellence and how I spent my summer vacation

(Photo: Dario Acosta)
<p>Baritone Thomas Hampson.</p>
Photo: Thomas Hampson
Baritone Thomas Hampson.

Even in the midst of such a multitude of amazing artists, a few rise above the rest. We heard one of those.

Along with New York and Washington D.C., we visited Boston so my wife could attend the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) National Conference. For months we had been looking forward to the recital the great American baritone Thomas Hampson was scheduled to give in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory.

We had no idea in advance what he would sing, but that didn’t matter. If you are familiar with his voice, you know it doesn’t matter what he sings. You just want to be there when it happens. We were.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough to accept an invitation to sing for 800 voice teachers ever again,” Hampson later joked. Even so, he certainly couldn’t have found a more engaged and enthusiastic crowd.

We entered upstairs and sat in the right side of the balcony, overlooking an empty stage except for the 9-foot Steinway grand piano. No microphones, no small table with a glass of water. Nothing but the piano.

Jordan Hall is a stunning work of art. One is completely surrounded by carved wood and figured wrought iron. Every whisper can be heard with perfect clarity, whether it comes from the stage or from the audience.

Finally, the house lights dimmed and Hampson, along with pianist Vlad Iftinca, walked on stage, bowing before eager applause. He took three bows before graciously indicating the audience should stop and let him sing. Then he opened his mouth and began.

For the next hour we all held our breath.

It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t familiar with the repertoire. Lieder by Richard Strauss, Samuel Barber and other composers on the program are beyond my usual fare. What struck me instantly, though, was the intensity, purity and indescribably beautiful tone and expressiveness pouring out of this man’s soul.

Quite simply, it was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had as an audience member in recent memory.

It occurred to me that I was listening to a man who represents the finest of what we strive to be as human beings, performing at the top of his game. His use of the muscles he has spent countless hours and relentless effort to train was no less athletic and impressive than any world-class athlete we idolize.

The recital reminded me that excellence is way of life, rather than being something that sits on your shelf in the form of a trophy, representing one moment of glory from back in the day. Musicians, who practice and train continually to perform their best, know this as well as anyone.

After Hampson’s third encore, “Shenandoah,” we leapt to our feet yet again, the sound of his voice still echoing in our hearts.

He grinned and bowed, then left the stage. The thunderous applause called him back for another bow. He returned for yet a third bow, but after he turned to go, he stopped suddenly. As he stepped to the front of the stage, we all fell silent.

In the breathless moment that followed, in one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the country, he whispered, “Go home.”

We laughed, and vowed never to forget this summer vacation.

Watch a clip of Hampson performing "Shenandoah":