Jessye Remembered (An Excuse to Play Lots of Jessye Videos)

Jessye Norman Memorial
Sunday, November 24th was a sleepy, rainy afternoon. But the Met auditorium was packed to the brim for a sold-out memorial dedicated to the late, great soprano Jessye Norman. The memorial mixed personal reminisces with musical performances. It struck the right notes between a somber reverence for Ms. Norman and a joyful celebration of her life.
The musical highlights were thoughtfully picked and all associated with Norman's repertoire. Leah Hawkins and Latonia Moore bookended the afternoon with moving renditions of the spirituals "Great Day" and "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." Ms. Hawkins, Ms. Moore as the Met Chorus plus the Porgy and Bess chorus filled the house with big, majestic sound.

In 2013 Jessye Norman could still rock the house singing "Whole World In His Hands." Respect.

Jessye Norman was famous for her interpretation of Richard Strauss's lieder and that was well-represented yesterday afternoon. Lise Davidsen sang the lovely "Morgen!" with perhaps more hesitation than Jessye would have sung it. Davidsen is only 32 and has been attracting notices for her fearless forays into dramatic soprano territory. Her voice is different from the big lush Norman voice. It's a narrower, more focused sound. Mark Markham took the song at a very slow pace, which might have added to the feeling of caution.

So once again Jessye, take it:

Renée Fleming returned to the Met stage to sing another Jessye staple: "Beim Schlafengehen" from Four Last Songs. Fleming's voice is still remarkably silvery with the right Straussian spin to high notes. Gerald Martin Moore at the piano and David Chan at the violin were great surrogates for the usual orchestral accompaniment.

But one expected spirituals and Strauss to be on the program. I had more fun looking up Jessye Norman's singing Duke Ellington's "Heaven" after hearing J'Nai Bridges's rousing rendition of the song. As usual, Jessye didn't disappoint. She even gets the scat right, and opera singers crossing over into jazz rarely get the scat.

There was dancing too -- we learned that Ms. Norman was a great fan of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. From DTH Alicia Graf Mack danced Arthur Mitchell's Balm in Gilead to Jessye Norman's recording. Graf Mack is a tall stunning dancer with beautiful lines. I don't need to tell you what Alvin Ailey Dance Company did. Ok they danced the same thing they always dance: Revelations. People danced and clapped along in their seats like they always do.

There were scattered spoken reminisces and videos of Norman throughout the afternoon. The figures ranged from activist Gloria Steinem to actress Anna Deavere Smith. Their remarks were tasteful and without any of the smug name-dropping that can sometimes infect memorial services.

The best video and reminiscence was the one with her sister Elaine Norman Sturkey and brother James Howard Norman. It was accompanied by a family album video. As one watched the video and looked at her family that were in the audience and onstage one saw a thread -- the Normans are a good-looking family. They all have Jessye's big eyes and strong cheekbones. A picture of Jessye holding her infant grand-nephew got deserved "awws." Her sister Elaine spoke about Jessye's warmth as well as her idiosyncrasies. The auditorium laughed at Elaine's description of her traveling habits -- 10 heavy Louis Vuitton suitcases for a week-long trip. Teapots and humidifiers were considered essentials to pack.

General Manager Peter Gelb represented the Met and his speech ranged from the slightly hyperbolic (he calls the Met the "House that Jessye Built") to an interesting bird's eye view of the music industry. He recalled Norman's debut at the Salzburg Festival with legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan.

"In Salzburg, where opera stars are more important than movie stars, images of Jessye’s face were everywhere in advance of her arrival. The city’s fleet of taxicabs had portraits of Jessye plastered on their sides, and posters of Jessye appeared in the front windows of just about every Salzburg store, from sausage stalls to lingerie shops. All of this was making the imperious but aging Karajan, who ruled over the city from his perch at the Festspielhaus, a little insecure,” Mr. Gelb said. Gelb recalled that Karajan made a blatant power play in the first rehearsal by having Norman sit onstage for an entire morning without asking her to sing. The story, of course ended in Norman's triumph.

Here are the results. It's a shame Norman never sang a complete Isolde.

The Met videos were disappointingly short. No video of her singing Dialogues of the Carmelites or Les Troyens? It seemed as if the Met was trying to get around mentioning the Conductor Who Must Not Be Named and the Tenor-Turned-Baritone-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named who were involved in many of those performances. Throw this in the bag of "hmm why didn't anyone think of this?": why not show clips of Dialogues, which was not conducted by Unnamed Conductor?

The best speaker other than her family was France's former Minister of Culture Jack Lang. He apologized for his charmingly garbled English before recounting how he got Norman to sing the Marseillaise for the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day. He recounted Jessye's painstaking preparations for the big moment, and how the initial feedback was that she wasn't French. "Who else other than Jessye could have sung this?" Lang asked. And then we hit the tapes, where Jessye Norman sings Marseillaise so magnificently that I temporarily forget that for me this anthem will always belong to Paul Henreid in Casablanca.

Overall it was a lovely afternoon that almost didn't happen for me because I forgot to buy tickets the day they went on sale. (I always forget.) And of course the minute I went home I went down the Youtube rabbit hole of listening to Jessye Norman recordings all night. Radiance, star quality, whatever it was, she had it. What a magnificent lady and magnificent voice.


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