Twenty-two musicians, 12 cities, one baritone – and no conductor. Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Thomas Hampson discuss their next adventure
Love and death, melancholia, our lack of faith: the poetic themes in Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s upcoming tour aren’t exactly light-hearted, but they promise to make for an exceptionally beautiful, poignant programme. Accompanied by American baritone Thomas Hampson, the Dutch string ensemble will perform a series of concerts under the label ‘Songs & Poems’ at halls across Europe from 25 January – 10 February.
The tour includes Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, based on Richard Dehmel’s dark, dramatic poem about two lovers, and Dover Beach, Samuel Barber’s lesser-known work for baritone and string quartet that takes its cues from Mathew Arnold’s masterpiece.
‘It’s a melancholic poem about lost faith and lost time,’ says Hampson. ‘It’s deeply metaphoric in the natural phenomenon of waves and pebbles flowing back and forth, and the inevitability of time – and also the inevitability and ambivalence of human nature. Arnold wrote it as a commentary on society’s lack of faith in God.’
‘There’s this impending desolation,’ he continues, ‘and the only brightness in the poem seems to be that of love, of living in the moment, and finding that love that defines your life – meaning both personal, sexual love, but also compassion for your fellow man. It’s a very profound work. I think it’s going to be very exciting to hear this marvellous string ensemble bring another colour, depth and profundity to this work that’s originally for string quartet.’
The question of love is continued in Brahms’ song cycle Vier ernste Gesänge, arranged by the English composer David Matthews for baritone and string orchestra – a world premiere, and Hampson’s first ever performance of Brahms.
‘I’m very enthusiastic about that,’ says the baritone. ‘There have been some orchestral arrangements of these Brahms songs but they’re too thick, they’re more like symphonies. So I think we have a real chance at creating something quite atmospheric with just a string group.’
At its core, the thematic line running through the concerts is this notion that love will conquer all moral problems, explains Willem de Bordes, who is responsible for artistic planning and programming at Amsterdam Sinfonietta. ‘And because the first half of the programme is so dark and oriented on life’s biggest questions, we thought, let’s try and give it a much lighter ending.’
This comes in the form of five songs by Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert, including Wolf’s Italian Serenade, all arranged by David Matthews.
Hampson is keen to point out that while there are powerful narrative themes at work in this concert programme, it’s chiefly about song.
‘It’s an artform that, in whatever context, explores the human experience, whether that’s euphoric, desperate or contemplative. And as much as we can be taken in by the forces involved, it really is about the song, the music. I think that’s what will be quite overwhelming in these concerts – I’m sure of that.’
‘It’s more than being invited as a soloist. I feel myself invited as a colleague, and as a chamber collaborator.’
With its big literary themes and occasionally difficult sound, the concerts will certainly be challenging – for audiences as well as players.
‘I always try to include unusual compositions or make really artistic programmes,’ says de Bordes. ‘We always try to do something a bit different. Sure, if you put Verklärte Nacht on the programme, it’s not always easy. And the Brahms songs are biblical, dark, they’re harsh… sometimes they’re not even beautiful because they push on you. They’re demanding.
‘We could have chosen lighter songs; this isn’t the easy way out. But we hope that after presenting programmes like this for so many years, people have enough trust to believe that we’re going to bring something very special.’
What’s interesting about speaking with Hampson and the team at Amsterdam Sinfonietta is they’re all very engaged with the creative concept behind the tour programme, and are equally involved in its artistic planning. Indeed, this egalitarian creative involvement is the ensemble’s calling card: working without a conductor, all players have their say in developing concerts. And this collaborative approach extends to the group’s many guest soloists.
‘It’s more than being invited as a soloist,’ says Hampson, who first sang with the group in 1998. ‘I feel myself invited as a colleague, and as a chamber collaborator. It’s not like I’m coming in to do my thing and they just accompany me. It’s different to [singing with] a pianist or orchestra; it’s a very unique chamber music experience for me as a singer. It’s challenging too, a very different atmosphere. Everybody’s got their ears wide open, and that’s great.’
‘Sometimes it’s not even so much what people say, it’s the energy they bring when they walk through the door, and how they play’
Candida Thompson, the ensemble’s artistic director and lead violin, characterises the collaboration as sewing together a patchwork quilt, combining various artistic elements and expertise from all the performers involved.
‘Thomas was one of the first soloists who worked with us,’ she says. ‘He’s a perfect example of when a soloist can communicate directly with the orchestra, and almost use us as if he was working with a pianist. We have to become almost like a piano. We have to become one person as an orchestra, harmonically, with everything coming out incredibly clearly, and as a result, give more meaning to the words.’
Do all guest soloists take this approach of unification when playing with Amsterdam Sinfonietta? ‘Every project where we work with a soloist is totally different,’ says Thompson. ‘What they bring out of us is always quite different, and can be very inspiring. Sometimes it’s not even so much what people say, it’s the energy they bring when they walk through the door, and how they play. It creates a different ambience.’
‘Last year for instance we worked with the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja; she’s a musician who is very experimental. She’s looking for extremes, and is very creative during a performance. She could do something completely different, so you have to be very much on your toes. She could go in a hugely different direction with the music [each concert]. It’s terribly interesting to see how extreme you can be without losing the music as a whole. Her interpretations can change at any moment throughout the day, almost depending on the mood.’
But it’s clear that the ensemble is up to the challenge. ‘I have previously programmed Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite – all six movements instead of the usual three, arranged for string orchestra and to be performed unconducted,’ says de Bordes. ‘I don’t think there’s any group in the world who would dare to do that. But because I know the players so well, and how they work, I knew it would be possible. It’s nice to challenge them in seeing where the boundaries are – you can get a really high level of playing.’