‘This is the beginning. /Almost anything can happen.” Those are the opening lines of former US poet laureate Billy Collins’s “Aristotle.” It’s not likely, though, that Collins foresaw his poem would be set for baritone and string quartet by American composer Mark Adamo, who’s best known for his operas “Little Women” and “Lysistrata.” The brand-new 15-minute work — it premiered last Wednesday at the University of California-Davis — was the centerpiece of the well-gauged program baritone Thomas Hampson and the Jupiter String Quartet presented in their Celebrity Series concert Friday at Jordan Hall.
“Aristotle” aside, it was an all-Austrian evening, opening with Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 10 and Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz.” After “Aristotle” and the intermission came Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and a selection of Wolf’s songs.
Schubert composed his E-flat-major quartet in 1813, when he was just 16, and it’s full of youthful humor and high spirits, with questions and answers in the opening Allegro moderato and some hide-and-seek in the brief, prestissimo Scherzo. Webern wrote his “Langsamer Satz” (“Slow Movement”) in 1905, when he was 21. Although he was head over heels in love with his cousin Wilhelmine Mörtl, whom he would marry in 1911, it’s oddly sober and muted.
The Jupiter began the Schubert in rich, relaxed fashion, and I liked the way that, from the outset, the four players — violinists Nelson Lee and Megan Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel (Megan’s sister), and cellist Daniel McDonough — kept looking at one another. Now teasing, now petulant, now songful, the performance ranged through all of Schubert’s adolescent moods, ending in a witty romp. The Webern, with its echoes of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” was intriguingly unblended, its anguish palpable, its intensity not easing till the final moments. Both pieces were firmly outlined and sensitively phrased, with the occasional pregnant pause.
At 57, Hampson still has plenty of power, and he never seems to strain. He was a one-man Greek chorus in Collins’s poem, which muses on the beginning, the middle, and the end of life (thus following Aristotle’s precept) and seems to wonder why with time doesn’t come greater wisdom. Adamo wreathes the string quartet’s chugging lines around the baritone’s recitative, giving him plenty of room, and Hampson took it, agitated over the difficult births at the end of the “beginning” section, tender when he came to “the last elephant in the parade.” Collins’s poem ends with “falling leaves”; Adamo’s vocal line actually rises at this point. I wouldn’t have objected to hearing it encored.
Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” is a combination of serenade and scherzo, and the Jupiter’s traversal brought out both elements. There was also a pleasing contrast in the six songs — five of them settings of the German poet Eduard Mörike — that followed, with Hampson’s hearty, positive vocal set against the Jupiter’s sweet-and-sour accompaniment. The single encore, Wolf’s setting of Goethe’s “Der Rattenfänger,” found Hampson at his comic best as the song’s Pied Piper of Hamelin.