Jamie Barton thrills in Jake Heggie songs with the composer on piano in a Berkeley lovefest

United StatesUnited States Various: Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Jake Heggie (piano). Presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 3.4.2022. (HS)

Jake Heggie accompanies Jamie Barton (London, Dec. 2021) © Mark Allan

Jake Heggie – ‘Music’ from The Breaking Waves; What I Miss the Most… (West Coast premiere); Of Gods and Cats; Iconic Legacies (First Ladies at the Smithsonian)
Purcell/Britten – ‘Music for a while’ from Oedipus
Schubert – ‘An die Musik’; ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; ‘Rastlose Liebe’
Price – ‘We Have Tomorrow’; ‘The Poet and his Song’; ‘Night’; ‘Hold Fast to Dreams’
Brahms – ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’; ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’; ‘Von ewiger Liebe’

Many artists presenting concerts today make it a point to note the joy, for them and for audiences, in returning to live performances. On Sunday afternoon, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and composer/pianist Jake Heggie took it up a notch with a program of songs that specifically celebrated the effects music can have on us. From the jump, they captivated a rapt audience at Hertz Hall at the University of California in Berkeley with glorious music-making and easy, witty, intelligent conversation.

Among today’s most prolific and successful opera composers (Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, It’s a Wonderful Life) Heggie has since the 1990s been writing songs for an impressive list of singers, especially celebrated mezzos including Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato. Barton seems to have a special rapport with the composer, and it seeps into the music. Everything flowed seamlessly and gained extra depth from their apparent mind meld.

Barton can amp up her richly textured voice into magnificent climactic moments and shape delicate phrases into something both conversational and musically fluid. An accomplished pianist, Heggie made the fast-moving spin of Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ ripple deftly and fashioned Brahms’s poignant chords into a heart-melting frame for Barton in ‘Von ewiger Liebe’. But as a pianist, he is at his best in his own music, which made up half the program.

The smart menu began with a delicious appetizer of three songs that specifically underline our need for music. Heggie’s ‘Music’, a 2011 song written for DiDonato to a text by Sister Helen Prejean (the subject of Dead Man Walking), focused on a music-deprived prisoner’s gratitude for the gift of a Walkman. Benjamin Britten’s telling arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ followed, suggesting that this yearning has been with us for centuries. Barton delivered the lightly decorated Baroque vocal line with a welcome naturalness.

‘An die Musik!’ began a set of three Schubert lieder, the composer’s own text describing how music could kindle his heart in gray hours. ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ let Barton’s incisive way of shaping both the musical line and the words demonstrate what the first songs were saying, and ‘Rastlose Liebe’ captured a palpable sense of looming loss.

Each set featured one paean to pure music and smartly avoided repeating the same topic with every piece. Florence Price’s ‘The Poet and his Song’, which poet Paul Laurence Dunbar ends with ‘I sing my song, and all is well’, nestled between the mid-twentieth-century American composer’s beautifully crafted settings of poems by Langston Hughes and Louise C. Wallace. Barton’s uncomplicated style brought them to life. The Brahms set included ‘Meine Liebe is grün’, which concludes with ‘Many songs are drunk with love’.

Good as these were, the second half brought things into sharper focus. Heggie’s music, which lies so naturally in the voice and fits easily with the words, hews mostly to lyrical consonance. He also weaves in enough punchy dissonance and slithery rhythmic turns to keep things interesting.

These attributes showed up nicely in the West Coast première of What I Miss the Most…, the first songs Heggie wrote for Barton as they prepared in 2021 for a tour of live concerts. The composer and singer asked people they admired to reflect on what the pandemic deprived them of, and the texts are touching. DiDonato mused on silence and rebirth, Patti LuPone on the value of time, Sister Helen on what a person can do in such circumstances, the composer/conductor Kathleen Kelly on communicating by video. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong opera fan, went right to the heart, focusing on ‘music made by many, in unison’. They’re all good and well worth hearing, but Heggie and Barton seemed most charged by Ginsburg’s sentiments.

Of Gods and Cats brought welcome humor in its two songs. First recorded by Jennifer Larmore in 2000, one song muses on the god-like demeanor of cats and the other on God’s mother’s efforts to corral her unruly child. They are utterly charming, especially when Barton lets out her inner feline.

Iconic Legacies was written in 2015 on a commission from the Kennedy Center in Washington. Susan Graham sang it to texts by lyricist Gene Scheer, who has penned the words for most of Heggie’s operas and a long list of songs. Scheer centered on four objects linked to moments in the lives of well-known First Ladies (the wives of U.S. presidents).

Heggie’s music wraps each object in poignancy. ‘Marian Anderson’s Mink Coat’ honors Eleanor Roosevelt for arranging the history-making concert at the Lincoln Memorial when racism prevented the contralto from singing indoors. A mourning band on Abraham Lincoln’s hat memorializes him for Mary Todd Lincoln, and a Christmas card brings extra poignancy to Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief as the last thing they both signed before JFK’s assassination. The Muppets on the TV show Sesame Street reflect on Barbara Bush’s appearance with them to promote a lifelong campaign to encourage child literacy and reading.

The encore was Fred Rogers’s ‘It’s You I Like’, a song written and composed by the beloved Mr. Rogers that the artists discovered they both loved. Heggie found a way into it by quoting a Chopin nocturne, another touchstone for the relationship between this singer and composer. They treated it like an art song, framing its simplicity and directness with unadorned warmth.

Harvey Steiman

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