Barton closes Vocal Arts season with a powerful Heggie-centered program

Thu Apr 07, 2022 at 12:20 pm

Jamie Barton performed. a recital for Vocal Arts DC Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Photo: Bree Anne Clowdus

Vocal Arts Jamie Barton closed out the Vocal Arts DC season on Wednesday night, in a recital with composer Jake Heggie at the piano in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The American mezzo-soprano focused on the composer’s songs for the second half, with some selections drawn from their recent 2020 recording.

Barton was last at the Kennedy Center for a recital with Kathleen Kelly in 2019, a time that seems a decade ago. Both musicians spoke with enthusiasm of their joy at singing again for a live audience, a yearning that served as the main focus of the program. (A few seats in the hall were left empty, partly by subscribers who chose to watch the performance via livestream.)

The same song that opened their recent album, Heggie’s “Music” from The Breaking Waves, set the tone. It uses words by Sister Helen Prejean, who provided the story for Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking. It opened dramatically with Barton’s voice unaccompanied, as Prejean described giving a tape player and headphones to a convict on death row.

At the word “music,” Barton fired off a heart-stopping high note, an explosive jolt at the man’s confession that he listened to music all night long, drinking it in “like a thirsty man.” As Heggie’s piano came to life in response, one felt the elation of the simple act of listening for someone deprived of music.

No applause followed, which was a rare occurrence for an audience inclined to clap after every song. Into the silence came “Music for a While,” from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for Oedipus. Britten’s expanded version of this delightful piece suited Barton’s brawny tone, with octaves in the left hand and some modern touches added to the harmony. Showing familiarity with baroque style, Barton added a few ornaments to the da capo repeat.

Barton gave a celebratory fullness to Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik,” down to a brazen low range. A slower tempo emphasized the singer’s remarkable breath support in “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” again with some blazing high notes. “Rastlose Liebe,” even at a somewhat relaxed tempo, challenged Heggie’s technique, but the Schubert set was as much a highlight as it was in Barton’s last Vocal Arts recital, in 2015.

Barton, who grew up in Georgia, gave a homespun turn to a winning Florence Price set. The rough, grinding Rs, for example, were somewhat overdone in the brief opener, “We Have Tomorrow,” on an elegiac text by Langston Hughes. The highlight was “The Poet and His Song,” another ode to the power of music by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. (A D.C. school, America’s first public high school for black students, was renamed for the poet in 1916.)

One of the most subtly beautiful moments of the evening came in Price’s “Night.” Barton caressed the rapturous melodic turns, over the Debussy-like dreamy harmonies splayed out by Heggie at the keyboard. The final song, “Hold Fast to Dreams,” featured a thrilling leap from Barton’s chest voice up to the heights in the final line.

The most delightful discovery of the program was that Barton’s voice is ideal for Brahms lieder. She took “Unbewegte laue Luft” at a luxuriant pace, drawing out the delights of the evening air described in the text. Her chest voice roared in the turbulent “Meine Liebe ist grün,” and her vocal power reinforced vivacious storytelling in “Von ewiger Liebe.”

The second half opened with Heggie’s new cycle, What I Miss the Most…, written for Barton and premiered last year. It is set to often prosaic texts from a haphazard assortment of famous Heggie friends about what they missed during the pandemic. Joyce DiDonato’s “Order” received a stark accompaniment of poignant dissonances, but contributions from Patti LuPone and Sister Helen Prejean fell flat.

Heggie repeated many of the lines from the short text provided by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, creating a lilting, comforting ostinato over a simple and repetitive accompaniment. The cycle concluded with an ode to video conferencing penned by pianist Kathleen Kelly.

Two other Heggie works came off much stronger with Barton than they had in previous performances. Barton hammed up the bizarre diptych Of Gods and Cats, heard from Rod Gilfry on his virtual recital for Vocal Arts DC just last year, in a way that made it more appealing and absurd.

Likewise, Barton’s beefy voice sliced through the cloying qualities of Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian, commissioned by Vocal Arts for its 25th anniversary in 2015 and premiered on the series by Susan Graham. Barton grabbed the ears with impassioned volume, recalling Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an event echoed by allusions in the piano to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which she sang that day.

Similar dramatic fervor enlivened the songs inspired by Mary Todd Lincoln and Jaqueline Kennedy, with a whirling motif in the piano, first heard in the second song and that unites the last three songs. While Barton’s lack of agility made some of the running passages less appealing, the strength of her high B made for an exciting conclusion.

For an encore, Barton sang Heggie’s arrangement of “It’s You I Like,” by PBS children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, tinged with quotations from Chopin. This whimsy recalled the work of jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who played the piano and arranged the music on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

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