Jessye Norman: The Great American Diva Still Has ‘It’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bernstein, Rodgers, Gershwin, Arlen, Donaldson, Weill, Duke Ellington:  Jessye Norman (soprano); Mark Markham (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.5.2012 (CC)

I can’t help wondering if one’s reaction to this concert depends on the direction from which one approaches it. Critical reaction that I have read so far centres on the weakening of Norman’s voice and, indeed, interpretative faculties, with complaints being voiced that songs became unrecognizable under a welter of Normanesque adornments. And yet, and yet . .. If one comes from another road, from ears attuned in particular to the great Sarah Vaughan (who gave a notable evening in the 1980s at this same venue, that I was privileged to attend), or even Ella Fitzgerald, then one wonders if it is not so outrageous that Norman could be counted as, if not in their company, then perhaps placed in close proximity to them

Miss Norman is a somewhat slighter figure than one remembers from the 1980s and 1990s. Then, she entered the auditorium like a galleon in full sail (when she performed with Pierre Boulez – which she did, often – he trotted behind almost like a cute little puppy dog). But it wasn’t just about her physical size – it was the sheer size of her personality that filled the hall. Perhaps there is less of that now, although her smile remains radiant. When Norman began singing Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’ (West Side Story) it became evident her voice, while still individual and instantly recognizable, is not what it was. The full low register is still there, but the middle and high registers are diminished. Mark Markham was here, as elsewhere, superbly sensitive to his soloist, and he played an equal part in co-creating (or should that be co-reinventing) the next item, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Carousel) as a modern-day Schubert lied, such was its intimacy, and its resonant climax. Ending the first set were two numbers from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy: ‘But not for me’ (with all the atmosphere of smoky Berlin cabaret) and ‘I got rhythm’, which found Norman prowling the stage like a predatory cat. Ever the performer, ever at home in her chosen repertoire; one has to admire her.

The second set added Harold Arlen (1905-1986) to the mix (the pure magic of his ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ from House of Flowers). Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ (Lady, Be Good!) was delivered with a haunting, blanched line, while ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (The Sound of Music) was pure Norman territory, showing off her cavernous low register.  A poignant ‘Lonely Town’ (Bernstein: On the Town) led to an astonishing ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ from Porgy, which turned into nothing less than a psychodrama.

The third set (post-interval) was a succession of dedications. And here came the surprise – a microphone for the great Jessye Norman. Surely not? Well, almost not, as sometimes she chose to position it so far away it was all but useless.  “For Nina Simone” was Walter Donaldson’s ‘My baby just cares for me’, which led into “For Lena Horne” (‘Stormy Weather’), which equaled Sarah Vaughan’s ability to invoke preternatural pathos. ‘Another man done gone’ (“For Odetta”) found Markham pounding the wood on the extreme right side of the keyboard (I feared for his hand), which, with the pedal down, brought a dark, futile percussive sound. This was a very low pitch soliloquy (like ‘Stormy Weather’, Norman sat down for this). The music box opening of Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’ (“For Ella Fitzgerald”) led to a version that included some fine scat from Norman. Finally, an Ellington set, begun with a fine solo ‘Meditation’ from Markham, complete with Chopinesque moments. The three Ellington songs began with ‘Don’t get around much anymore’, more of a scene-setter for the superbly articulated ballad of I’ve got it bad and a masterly rendition of ‘It don’t mean a thing’.  Two encores – the supremely apposite ‘A Foggy Day (In London Town)’ and a magnificently unbuttoned ‘Summertime’.  A great evening, and a great chance to see a great artist once more.

Colin Clarke