Vocal Arts Jamie Barton closed the Vocal Arts DC season on Wednesday night, in a recital with composer Jake Heggie on piano at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The American mezzo-soprano focused on the composer’s songs for the second half, with some selections taken 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. The two musicians spoke enthusiastically of their joy of singing for live audiences again, a desire that has been the main focus of the program. (A few seats in the venue were left empty, in part by subscribers who opted in to watch the performance live.)
The same song that opened their recent album, Heggie’s “Music” from The breaking waves, announce the color. He uses words from Sister Helen Prejean, who provided the story for Heggie’s first opera, walking dead man. It opened dramatically with Barton’s unaccompanied voice, as Prejean described him giving a cassette player and headphones to a death row inmate.
At the word “music”, Barton launched a breathtaking high note, an explosive jolt at the man’s confession that he had been listening to music all night, drinking it down “like a thirsty man”. As Heggie’s piano came alive in response, one felt the exhilaration of just listening for someone deprived of music.
No applause followed, which was rare for an audience inclined to clap after every song. Into the silence came ‘Music for a While’, incidental music by Henry Purcell for Oedipus. Britten’s expanded version of this lovely piece suited Barton’s muscular tone, with octaves in the left hand and some modern touches added to the harmony. Showing a familiarity with the Baroque style, Barton added some ornamentation to the da capo repetition.
Barton gave Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik” festive fullness, down to a cheeky low range. A slower tempo underscored the singer’s remarkable breath support in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, again with soaring high notes. “Rastlose Liebe”, even at a somewhat relaxed pace, challenged Heggie’s technique, but Schubert’s set was just as much of a highlight as it was during Barton’s final vocal arts recital, in 2015.
Barton, who grew up in Georgia, put a homemade spin on a winning set from Florence Price. The grating R’s, for example, were somewhat exaggerated in the brief opener, “We Have Tomorrow”, to 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 DC school, America’s first public high school for black students, was renamed in the poet’s honor in 1916.)
One of the night’s most subtly beautiful moments came in Price’s “Night.” Barton caressed the delighted melodic turns, over the dreamy Debussy-like harmonies deployed by Heggie on the keyboard. The final song, “Hold Fast to Dreams,” featured a thrilling leap from Barton’s chest vocal to the highs of the final line.
The program’s most delightful discovery was that Barton’s voice is ideal for Brahms lieder. She took “Unbewegte laue Luft” to a lush beat, bringing out the delights of the evening air described in the text. His chest voice roared in the turbulent “Meine Liebe ist grün”, and his vocal power reinforced the lively narration 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’s made up of often prosaic texts from a random assortment of Heggie’s famous friends about what they’ve been missing during the pandemic. Joyce DiDonato’s “Order” received a stark accompaniment of poignant dissonance, but contributions from Patti LuPone and Sister Helen Prejean fell flat.
Heggie repeated many lines from the short text provided by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, creating a singsong, comforting ostinato over a simple, repetitive accompaniment. The cycle concluded with an ode to videoconferencing written by pianist Kathleen Kelly.
Two other works by Heggie proved much stronger with Barton than in previous performances. Barton hammered the bizarre diptych gods and catsheard from Rod Gilfry during his virtual recital for Vocal Arts DC last year, in a way that made it more appealing and absurd.
Similarly, Barton’s beefy voice slices through the sickening qualities of Iconic Legacy: Smithsonian First Ladies, commissioned by Vocal Arts for its 25th anniversary in 2015 and premiered in Susan Graham’s series. Barton gripped the ears with impassioned volume, recalling Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an event echoed by piano allusions to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which she sang that day- the.
A similar dramatic fervor animated the songs inspired by Mary Todd Lincoln and Jaqueline Kennedy, with a swirling piano motif first heard in the second song that unites the last three songs. While Barton’s lack the agility made some of the running passages less appealing, the strength of its so high 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 quotes from Chopin. This fantasy was reminiscent of the work of jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who played the piano and arranged the music on Rogers’ “Mr. Neighborhood.”