Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Brava, Jessye Norman!

While I never got to see her live in a staged opera, I was blessed (and that’s the word) to have heard Jessye Norman perform in a number of recitals and orchestral performances. So, blessed IS the word and YES, she really WAS that good!

Each performance from her was a unique and special experience; few recitalists communicated better or more directly to their audience than did Ms. Norman. From the moment she walked onto the stage the lovefest began. And Jessye respected and challenged her audiences, always presenting a mixture of the unique and “strange” with the comfortable. Berg, Messiaen, Schoenberg and Haydn mixed with Mozart, Handel, Brahms and Strauss. Outside of “cult” figures like the woefully underappreciated Cathy Berberian,
who else of Norman’s stature was presenting such wildly varied music in performances. I recall a recital where folk who’d known her primarily from her spirituals (and were not noted for being classical music fans) went mad for, of all things, her Messiaen, which was not presented in the usual “respectful block” of your typical recital, but spread out throughout it. (Of course, Jessye never gave a “typical” recital.)

Her instincts and discipline created musicmaking of the highest order, performances you felt that, had the composers been able to hear her they’d be shouting “THAT’S how it goes!”

The sound of that voice – one of the most beautiful, sensuous voices in my experience, was thrilling, opulent. Norman’s voice had this almost bizarre, dual quality, being simultaneously “dark” and “refulgent.” It wasn’t as gigantic a sound as some might think, but rather, as a friend once called it “mighty.” That velvety, soul-filled texture could be transformed into one of surprisingly remarkable lightness, and flexibility (even with a decent trill!) and when combined with her flair of insightfulness of text wedded to music, she was one of the most significant and extraordinary recitalists of the 20th century.

As much as she did her audiences, Jessye consistently challenged herself as well, always seeking out unusual repertoire to present to us. All this, while she could EASILY have cobbled together a winning set of Wolf, Schubert, and Mahler performing to sold out halls for the rest of her career. Instead, she created these crazy kaleidoscopes of programs introducing appreciative and hungry
audiences to music most had never even before heard of, much less heard.
Brava, Jessye!

Later in her career, Norman (like many other greats before her) seemed to be compensating for vocal imperfections, pitch problems, etc., by beefing up the drama of the text and taking a few liberties (a few too many for some) with the notes resulting in less than perfect performances. While this may have infuriated some, there were plenty others (like me) who were more than happy to still have these experiences with Jessye because, overall, she was still getting most of it right and what was there to enjoy was seldom less than magnificent.

63 is not particularly old these days, but in the life of a singer (particularly female singers) it means the career is decidedly over – or soon headed that way. That Jessye Norman is still presenting herself before a public who clearly adore and want to hear her is to be applauded. While no singer can be at 63 what they were at 40, Ms. Norman still sounds pretty good to these ears and, not surprisingly, better than more than a few singers decades younger.

She always was, and remains, an American treasure and I just love her, Brava, Jessye!

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