Jessye Norman Dazzles Crowd At Denison

Soprano Jessye Norman.(Photo: Carol Friedman)
Soprano Jessye Norman.(Photo: Carol Friedman)

Jessye Norman appeared in recital on Sunday at Denison University’s prestigious Vail Series thanks to the peerless Lorraine Wales, who founded this finest of presenting organizations in 1979 and is set to retire this year.

Lorraine and Denison both have, in my experience, stood for nothing but excellence. It was at Denison I had the honor to hear Leontyne Price again in one of her last recitals. Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Kathleen Battle, Rachel Barton and Yuja Wang have appeared more than once. Yuja Wang is nearing the top of her profession as a concert pianist, a profession that began with Lorraine and the Vail Series.

Admittedly, I thought Norman had retired. She is somewhere in her 60s and is 40 years into a world-class career. It has always been a hoot among critics to go off on her, and admittedly the lady makes it too easy. She is tall, large, regal and grand. Years ago her speaking voice was noted to have more to do with Mayfair than rural Georgia. She at one time was obese. She has been stunning for many years and stunning she was yesterday.

This lady, who made Strauss’ Four Last Songs mega hits, was superb in Brahms, Poulenc, Berlioz, Schumann and Mahler. Her opera performances included passionate Wagner, Sieglinde and Kundry at the Met and worldwide.

So I approached yesterday’s presentation of an America Songbook with mixed feelings. Norman did a lot right. She is clearly committed to Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Duke Ellington. They received the same respect from her she gave to the composers mentioned above. As it should be.

Clearly Norman has a lot of voice left, but we didn’t hear much of it. She adopted a very quiet, intimate style for much of the program. It was more Cafe Carlyle than 500 people in a college chapel.

The voice was scaled way down, but though I was sitting near the stage, I’m confident that every note spun easily to the back of Swazey Chapel. She moaned and cried with a bit of excess. Once or twice she let fly a note above the staff that told you “I am Jessye Norman.” Indeed she was. She avoided the trap of oversinging and made music without a phony overemphasis that derails legit voices going pop.

But can you blame me for wanting to hear that entire voice? Her sound is one of the columns of the Parthenon – huge and wine colored where the sun really does come out above the staff.

She could do that but yesterday chose not to.  Hence my disappointment. I had hoped for this for an encore. I offered $5 to the friend next to me to stand up and call for it. She wouldn’t. Oh, well.

Mark Markham was the accompanist. He has been touring with Norman for nine years. I had never heard of him, and paraphrasing Duke Ellington, I need to get out more. This guy is sensational. I don’t know if he’s a classical pianist playing jazz or vice versa, and who cares. He sacrificed nothing of his own personality working with a still formidable singer.

Ironically, the highlight of the program was a song when Markham did not play the piano. Another Man Done Gone is a devastating spiritual performed in tribute to Odetta. Mr Markham accompanied with his fist pounding on the piano, not on the keys. Norman was still more Berlioz Les troyens than I would have liked, but this and the rest of the program had a packed house cheering.

Ethel Merman said, “Some got it and some ain’t.” Jessye still got it.

Comments
  • Ariane csonka

    Thank you for a beautiful update on my favorite of all time,