CALPERMANCES 2022 review: Sunday in the Park with Jamie Barton & Jake Heggie
On April 3, 2022, CALPERFORMANCES presented “Sunday in the Park”, a musical party that filled the heart, mind and soul for almost two hours. Two exceptionally talented artists—Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano extraordinary and the famous American composer and pianist Jake Heggie – offered a program ranging from Schubert and Brahms to Price and Heggie himself. The concert was a pure and satisfying delight filled with thoughtful expression.
The opening song set the tone for what turned the afternoon into a virtual hymn to music. The first song was “Music” from Heggie’s song cycle, “The Breaking Waves” (2011), for which he composed the poems by Sister Helen Prejean. Here the performers demonstrated both intensity and intimacy, with an a capella opening of penetrating lows until the piano enters and the powerful voice turns into a buzz.
After Heggie, the program jumped back to the 17th century for a rendition of Purcell’s famous ‘Music for a while’, directed by Benjamin Britten. I found the presentation deeply moving and intimate while maintaining formality and elegance. Barton’s voice entwined like an entire choir and took the audience deep into the earth as she sang.
Barton and Heggie Shine with Schubert, Brahms and Price
Next comes Schubert’s bewitching “An der Musik” followed by his hymn to the divinity of music: “Du holde Kunst… Hast du mein Herz… in eine Beßre Welt entruckt (O sublime art, how you carried my heart to … a better world). “Barton, in great form, convinced me of this truth with his power and poignant pianissimo. His ability to magnify an already abundant voice has opened up musical gem after gem. Her voice seemed to become multiple as if others had taken the stage alongside her to become a single choir. Barton was eloquent and introspective, with a rich bugle tone that shimmered up and down the range. She never wavered or failed to develop every tone with exquisite fullness and radiance.
In their rendition of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” – a favorite of many other handsome mezzos – Heggie followed Barton every step of the way. Barton’s rendition was precise, moving, and imbued with intense color throughout its multiple stanzas spliced with multiple refrains. “Von ewig Liebe” showed Barton’s multiple skills in miniature, displaying the range of emotions with strong and definitive dramatic intensity. She backed up the drama with gestures and facial expressions without disrupting her precise vocal technique, balancing the dynamics with ease. Barton was equally masterful in “Rastlose Liebe”, moving seamlessly through the arpeggios with precision and taste.
Then she offered Brahms’ exquisite ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ in which flowed the heartfelt cry for life and love. Barton masterfully pleaded the poet’s case for a destiny that transcended even music. With such skill in conveying such introspective beauty, I hope Barton will perform more lieder repertoire. “Meine Liebe ist Grun,” which followed, was also a gem.
Two songs by famous African-American composer Florence Price followed. These musical expressions of poems by Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes showed the richness of Price’s oeuvre, validating the acclaim she eventually received. (Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s 2022 Grammy for Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 is another testament to his gifts.) I look forward to hearing more of Price’s music.
A showcase of Heggie’s work
The second half of the concert featured Heggie, with playfulness and emotion evident throughout. “Once Upon a Time in the Universe” and “Of Gods and Cats”, to poems by Gavin Dillard, led us from introspection to the outside world. For example, a cat walking on the piano keyboard and showing the consequences. Barton’s performance exemplified not only his vocal ability, but also his ease as an actor. The facial expression and the perfect purr perhaps suggested that a pretty cat, too, inhabited that sumptuous blue satin robe. These early Heggie songs introduced us to the composer whose career would flourish in operas such as “Moby Dick” and “Dead Man Walking,” two of Heggie’s many accomplished works.
The West Coast premiere of “What I Miss Most,” Heggie’s latest song cycle — written during the pandemic — not only paired lyrics from five high-profile American women, but captured many aspects of the backlash from the public at the terrible period of 2020-2021. The lyrics ranged from Joyce DiDonato’s “Order” with its driving beats; to Patti LuPone’s “Time” with its effective repetition, to the soulful simplicity of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “Music” with lovely singlets, simple tones and haunting repetitions. Each captured what many of us felt in front of our screens and the absence of what we longed for in person. “Action” by Sister Prejean and “You” by Kathleen Kelly also underline the desire for the human presence that no screen provides: “I lean towards the screen; I drink your invisible breath for a long time”, declaims its text. Barton and Heggie produced a poignant sostenuto on the word “drink,” which captured something of the sentiment.
The piece de resistance was Heggie’s song cycle “Iconic Legacies (First Ladies at the Smithsonian),” from which the duo performed four selections: “Marian Anderson’s Mink Coat” (Eleanor Roosevelt); “Abraham Lincoln’s Hat” (Mary Todd Lincoln); “White House Christmas Card, 1963” (Jackie Kennedy); and “The Muppets” (Barbara Bush). The text of the cycle comes from one of its principal collaborators, Gene Scheer. With these pieces, Heggie showed why he is one of the greatest exponents of American music and opera.
Each song was fresh and engaging as well as sharp and meaningful. The singer and songwriter treated the First Ladies with fresh and engaging truths in tone, personality, facts, and legitimate patriotic strength. Between Heggie’s sensitive musical taste and Barton’s emotional, vocal power and presence, audiences could simultaneously appreciate the woman, the situation, the country and the moving music. If this isn’t America, what is? The cycle showed us that American women not only matter but inspire. Their voices show the backbone of our most notable legacies in a government that frequently presents them as trophies.
Barton filled the bill here too. Her performances were an eloquent feast of sound and color that lifted women out of second place status. His cry on the Jackie Kennedy song, “Oh Jack, what would you have me do?” deeply touched and reverberated. I thought the cycle couldn’t get past that angst, but when Barton sang Barbara Bush’s puppet able to read “Once upon a time” thanks to Bush’s literacy program, I appreciated what was more than panache. I once again marveled at Heggie’s compositions and how they deliver layers of meaning every time through in-depth content and original musical texture.
Heggie’s playful bow on one knee to Jamie Barton in the finale only heightened the seriousness and intent of the songs, as did the tone and resonance of the concert. Filled with joy and demanding musical excellence, Jamie Barton and Jake Heggie gave us more than their creativity on this Berkeley Sunday afternoon. Through their donations, we could pay homage to musical imperatives and certain aspects of beautiful America, through the extraordinary and the everyday. What greater tribute to song and celebration than this?