Musicians are not meant to be confined to one facet of their craft. Renée Fleming, one of the foremost voices in opera today, is not shy about her love for jazz and the mastery that goes into the highly improvisational form. In discovering Patricia Barber, she found a jazz songwriter and singer who, as it turns out, has an incredibly high regard for the operatic style. In their one night only concert at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, they proved that the two genres can go together magically.
It cannot be denied that both of these women stand at the forefront of their respective fields. Fleming has performed at venues and events around the world such as the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Julibee, and the Super Bowl. She has taken on some of the greatest opera roles ever written such as Musetta in La boheme, Desdemona in Otello, and Violetta in La traviata. Patricia Barber, on the other hand, is the first recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition for non-classical music. She is widely considered to have redefined the role of singer-songwriter for 21st century jazz. With two performers of that stature on stage, it was evident from the beginning that the audience was in for a phenomenal evening.
Fleming began the night with a set of Barber’s pieces transcribed for her crystalline soprano. The title piece of the night “Higher,” written for Barber’s mother, spoke volumes of the hope in grief and was carried to the heavens by Fleming’s evocative voice. Barber weaved on and off the stage as she improved bridges before handing the keys over to pianist Craig Terry. The compositions ran the gambit from incredibly relevant (“Scream” written during the financial crisis of 2008) to hysterically irreverent (“You Gotta Go Home”). Fleming had the crowd cackling with the contrast between her proper vowels and her earthy humor before ending the first section with a stunning German/English rendition of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Barber then took to the stage with a piano stripped of its cover and a three-piece band of seasoned jazz musicians (Jon Deitemeyer-Drums, Neal Alger-Guitar, and Patrick Mulcahy-Bass). Her instrumental pieces “Like JT” and “B Minor Improvisation” seared through the audience as dexterous hands spun improvisational melodies. You could see the joy of the faces of the band during these pieces, imbibing a warm feeling to the music. Barber also proved that she was a talented vocalist in her own right during “Gotcha” and “If I Were Blue.” Her jazzy mezzo brought to mind Celtic priestesses paying reverence to a higher power.
The true magic was made in the final section in which Fleming and Barber took the stage together to combine their talents on such tunes as “Let It Snow,” “Pavane,” and “Surrender.” The delicate balance between the two voices was so perfect that at times, you could not differentiate between the two, or as Fleming called it “the coup d’etat,” paid homage to the lifestyle of the opera singer as a office worker dreams of the trimmings and trappings of fame. The continuing applause following this prompted the performers to return to the stage for a delightful encore of “Silver Bells.”
The combination of these two talents proved to be a triumph as the audience was reminded that their enjoyment of music cannot be confined to one particular genre. There are so many different styles to sample and one must seize every opportunity to do so.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Higher: Renée Fleming and Patricia Barber Perform the Music of Patricia Barber was a one night only concert given at the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, go to their website.