The late Charles Ives wrote in a postscript to his collection, 114 Songs, “Every normal man — that is, every uncivilized or civilized human being not of defective mentality, moral sense, etc. — has, in some degree, creative insight (an unpopular statement) and an interest, desire and ability to express it (another unpopular statement).”
For that reason this insurance-salesman-by-day and composer-by-night self-published his songs, all the while believing that many of them were not good enough to be sung in public.
Although the man is now long dead, his songs have endured. In fact, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton calls Ives her favorite American composer and sang one of his songs, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” in the preliminary round of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales.
“He is intriguing, intelligent, and composed every flavor with his use of hymn and popular tunes to stir up recognition of something else,” Barton says.
A native of Rome, Georgia and alumna of Shorter College, Barton won said international competition, becoming the first female recipient of both the Main Prize and the Song Prize. She appeared with pianist Bradley Moore at Spivey Hall Sunday to sing a recital built around the songs that she competed with in Wales last June.
Barton began with Benjamin Britten’s realization of “Music for Awhile,” a well-known Purcell song excerpted from the play “Oedipus,” and proceeded with a balanced set of lieder by Johannes Brahms. The group included another Cardiff centerpiece, “Meine Liebe ist grün.” The simplistic and youthful poem was penned by Felix Schumann, son of Clara and Robert, yet transformed by Brahms into an exuberant declaration of love. Barton also offered “Ständchen,” “Von ewiger Liebe,” and the sensual “Unbewegte laue Luft.”
Barton’s presentation of the German songs seemed spontaneous, rather than overly practiced. And although she possesses a rare and sizeable voice destined for Verdi roles such as Amneris and Azucena, Barton opted for vocal warmth and nuance throughout the group.
Since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007 — featured in Susan Froemke’s documentary “The Audition” — Barton has taken a conservative path when it comes to the trajectory of her operatic career. She has performed what she considers mid-level roles in order to learn her craft — roles such as Magdalene (“Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg”), Marthe (“Faust”), and Marcellina (“The Marriage of Figaro”) — acknowledging that she is in it for the long haul.
Despite her careful attitude, Jamie Barton has already garnered much attention. Two weeks ago, after debuting the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s opera, Norma at the Met, New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe referred to her as a “revelation” with a “big, rich voice from top to bottom.”
The Spivey Hall audience got its first inkling of the size and scope of Barton’s voice in Woolfe’s reference just before intermission when she sang a set of songs by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The switch was immediately evident within “Svarta rosor,” yet another piece that earned her the top prize at Cardiff.
Equally riveting was her interpretation of the ballad “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote.” The first two stanzas of the song tells of a girl who returns from a meeting with her lover with reddened lips and hands, and explains to her mother that her lips are merely stained from eating raspberries. Moore’s rendering of the accompaniment was majestic and then instantly subdued in the third stanza when we learn that the girl’s lover has betrayed her. In the final phrase, “Ty de bleknat genom lskarns otro” (for they had turned pale at her lover’s unfaithfulness), Barton flaunted a stunning chest voice that sounded otherworldly.
Barton and Moore concluded the Spivey Hall recital with “Sea Pictures” by Sir Edward Elgar. Unarguably best known for his “Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) op. 36” (1899), Elgar is also highly regarded for his compelling oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” (1900). The orchestral version of the five songs within “Sea Pictures,” composed during the same period, exhibits a similar intensity and romanticism characteristic of Elgar’s style.
While the piano version of this work does not hold the same allure, Barton was completely committed to the texts, fully conveying the mysterious exoticism within “Where Corals lie” as well as the angst within “The Swimmer.” (One can hear a live performance of the orchestral version recorded in 2012 with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra on Barton’s website.)
After almost two hours of singing, Barton left us with a surprising encore: “Never Neverland.” It was a nod to Mary Martin and a reference to Barton’s very first public solo at the age of six, the song “Tender Shepherd” from the musical “Peter Pan.”
Barton began her musical journey listening to her dad’s record collection — the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and bluegrass — and learning from him what to listen for in music. And when she enrolled at Shorter, her intention was to major in musical theatre. But fate intervened. “I discovered that I couldn’t dance,” says Barton.
While it’s unlikely that Barton will ever sing on Broadway like Mary Martin, her operatic career might take her miles beyond the moon.