Review: Memory glitch aside, Rome’s acclaimed Jaime Barton soars in Atlanta recital

In April, Barton received “the Heisman Trophy of opera."
In April, Barton received “the Heisman Trophy of opera."
In April, Barton received “the Heisman Trophy of opera."
In April, Barton received the “Heisman Trophy of opera.”

On Monday evening, mezzo-soprano Jaime Barton performed a recital of songs by Turina, Chausson, Schubert, Dvořák and Rachmaninoff, assisted by collaborative pianist Jonathan Easter, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in midtown Atlanta. Most of the repertoire Barton sang for this recital — all except the Rachmaninoff — was also sung during her February 17 appearance at Carnegie Hall with pianist Bradley Moore.

A native of Rome, Georgia, and alumna of Shorter College, Barton is a rich-voiced rising star in the classical vocal and operatic world. In 2007, she was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and in 2013 won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition — the first female recipient of both the Main Prize and the Song Prize. 

In 2014, she received the Marian Anderson Award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Then in April of this year, Barton was awarded the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Nicknamed the “Heisman Trophy of opera,” it came with a whopping $50,000 cash prize.

Easter, Barton’s able accompanist for the evening, is also an alumnus of Shorter and a recent recipient of a Masters of Music from Emory University. Easter is currently accompanist for the Atlanta Master Chorale and organist at Roswell Presbyterian Church.

Barton was in fine voice. She opened with “Homenaje a Lope de Vega,” Op. 90, by Joaquin Turina. Turina was an early 20th-century Spanish composer whose work was strongly influenced by traditional Andalusian music. This seven-minute set of three songs from 1935, originally for soprano and piano, showed that Barton can both float lightly on the upper side of her range and use a full chest voice in the lower for special effect without feeling like it devolves into crass belting.

Although the program originally called for Schubert at this point, Barton changed the order, singing three songs by Ernest Chausson: “Le Colibri,” “Hébé” and “Le Temps des Lilas.” Even French-song partisans all too easily overlook Chausson’s catalog of vocal repertoire. But there are luxuriant qualities to Chausson’s vocal writing — and like Schubert, a general preference for poetry of his contemporaries — which make his songs attractive alternatives to the greater French composers of mélodie in his day.

Four songs by Franz Schubert followed, starting with “Der König in Thule.” During that interlude came what every recitalist dreads: Partway into “Gretchen am Spinnrade” Barton had a memory lapse. 

She stopped, laughed and briefly commented to the audience, then went over to the piano and looked at Easter’s score. They began again from the beginning, but there was a second memory lapse, likewise addressed with mild humor. They resumed partway through, but with the third time there was no laughter. Barton gestured to Easter and they moved on to “Schäfers Klaglied” and “Rastlose Liebe” to conclude the recital’s first half. Barton handled the entire incident professionally.

The second half opened with the seven “Cikánské melodie” (“Gypsy Songs”), Op. 55, by Antonín Dvořák. The best known is the fourth, “Songs My Mother Taught Me” — a tune which has been recorded over time by singers and a wide range of instrumental artists from Glenn Miller to Yo-Yo Ma. But Barron did not allow it to stick out like a sole favored child, rather giving the entire set its due expressiveness without losing cohesiveness of the whole. 

Three songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff formally closed the second half, two of them drawn from his Op. 14 songs of 1896, “Spring Waters” and “I Wait for Thee,” plus a song published posthumously in the 1970s, “All Glory to God.” (The Russian title “Все хочет петь” literally translates “All things wish to sing.”) 

Written in 1916, it was originally intended to be part of the group of songs now published as the composer’s Op. 38. It as the last two of these for which Barton saved the biggest vocal guns, her resonant voice nearly shaking the rafters of All Saints’ at climactic points. 

Barton and Easter returned to the stage for two encores, modern settings of the African-American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the 1905 Gospel hymn “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” both arranged by J. Ivey. 

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