Hampson, Jupiter Quartet eloquent in Adamo premiere, Wolf songs

April 27, 2013
By David Wright

Thomas Hampson and the Jupiter String Quartet gave the Boston premiere of Mark Adamo’s “Aristotle” Friday night at Jordan Hall.

The peripatetic baritone Thomas Hampson came to New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Friday night with a string quartet in tow and an East Coast premiere in his luggage.

The concert, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, featured Hampson and the Jupiter String Quartet in Aristotle by Mark Adamo, a work commissioned for these artists by the consortium Music Accord, of which Celebrity Series is a member.

Fresh from its world premiere in Davis, Calif. last Wednesday, Aristotle shared the bill with works of Schubert, Webern, and Hugo Wolf. The piece is a setting of a fairly long poem of the same name by Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States.

Collins’s text is a catalogue poem, in which images from daily life are piled up and related to each other in order to make a point attributed to Aristotle: that life, like a Greek drama, has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The genius of the poem lies not in this unremarkable observation, but in the acutely-perceived images and situations the poem refers to, and in its cool, objective tone that holds powerful emotions in check.

Adamo, on the other hand, was looking to cut them loose in this piece. “While Collins’ language was minutely expressive of his narrator’s observations,” he wrote in a program note, “it remained reticent about his emotions. …The poem doesn’t tell you, so the vocal line must.”

It was an understandable conclusion, one supposes, for a composer who is best known for his operas. In the event, however, the quasi-operatic treatment seemed an odd fit for Collins’s sly, wry utterances.

Adamo’s concept worked best at the macro level: buoyant, optimistic beginnings; distracted, fragmented middle; and angry or resigned at the end. And Hampson applied his considerable dramatic powers to a rather capricious voice part that captured some of the text’s powerful images and slid past others.

The poet’s images spurred the composer to experiment with string-quartet sonorities, while (thankfully) never resorting to painting pictures with music. Collins’s poem ends, however, with a thumping cliché for mortality (“falling leaves”), which Adamo compounded by having the singer repeat it several times during the final diminuendo.

The evening began inauspiciously with a performance of Schubert’s very early String Quartet in E-flat major, D. 87, in which this quartet’s efforts to sound Classical and incisive were largely undone by a thick, heavy tone and an overfondness for plummy “swell attacks”—that is, starting a note and increasing it rather than starting at full volume.

When he wrote this piece, Schubert was 16 and still in Haydn’s thrall when it came to composing quartets. Still, Haydn is not a bad model to have, and young Schubert had a few bright ideas of his own, so there was no reason for this music to sound as pallid as it did Friday night.

The Jupiter players sounded much more at home in Webern’s Langsamer Satz, another very early work, this one composed under the influence of Verklärte Nacht, a late-Romantic composition for strings by Webern’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg.

Webern’s rhapsodic piece calls for each instrument to take at least one luscious solo, and to this the Jupiter players added sensitive listening to each other, creating an intertwining blend of audible strands that cast a spell.

Following the Adamo work and an intermission, the rest of the concert was devoted entirely to Hugo Wolf, starting with his Italian Serenade for string quartet. The Jupiter caught the forward momentum of this sunny piece and rendered its lively twists and turns with a clear, layered sound.

Hampson returned with the quartet for six lieder by Wolf, all revolving around the Romantic image of a man in Nature—by turns happy, sad, confused, weary. Two songs adopted a more objective tone and dealt in irony—piercing in “Auf ein altes Bild” and gentle in “Anacreons Grab.” Mark Adamo might have benefited from studying these latter two before undertaking to set Billy Collins’s ironic poem.

No arranger was listed for the Wolf songs, originally composed for voice and piano, but whoever it was created fine, idiomatic compositions for string quartet to preserve that Wolfian equality between voice and instrument(s).

Blessed with a voice that could fill Jordan Hall and two more just like it, Hampson modulated his tone all evening to blend collegially with the string foursome. In the evening’s lone encore, however, the mock heroics and ratty scurryings of Wolf’s “Die Rattenfänger” sent the opera star into some fits of baritonal bluster that sounded ready for the Met.

The next presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston will be soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Joseph Kaiser, 8 p.m. Wednesday at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. celebrityseries.org; (617) 482-6661.

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