Jessye Norman: still going strong, in her own style

A chance to hear Jessye Norman at the Royal Festival Hall (21/5/12). It could have gone either way, frankly, and I was unsure, maybe a little worried, at what might have been. In the event it was a sensational evening in the company of a remarkable artist.

It started a little bumpily, with a slightly wayward (and soupy/swoopy) account of Somewhere from West Side Story. The evening progressed through Bernstein, Rogers & Hammerstein, Gershwin, Ellington and Harold Arlen, amongst others. Some numbers challenged more than others, most notably the first half, where some tricky passages in upper-middle voice required some careful strategies. But when she was in intimate half-voice, she was stunning. There were also some full-force climaxes that conjured up a reminder of the Jessye Norman that could once deliver a Wagner role; as well as some leaps into the depths that brought forth that wonderful (?contr-)alto range. However, it was the sincerity of her artistry that came across most forcefully, and her evident love of singing. For someone who has such a diva-ish reputation, she had carefully chosen a programme that clearly meant something to her and she worked visibly hard to deliver it: it mattered. One short piano solo notwithstanding (an Ellington piece, without which I could have happily done), this programme was all hers: no nipping off for ten minutes whilst the band crash through the overture to Carmen. Certain diva-ish singers of today might like to reflect on that.

Highlights: Bernstein’s Lonely Town; Stormy Weather; Mack the Knife, which rose to rampant jazz heights; a cheeky My Baby Just Cares For Me; and a very poignant traditional, Another Man Done Gone, delivered near a cappella, with just Mark Markham beating a steady bass tread with his fist on the edge of the piano. Finally, bless her, she tried to get us clicking our fingers and joining in with the chorus of It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: we were terribly British about it and, after a slightly enthusiastic start, we all sort of petered out by the second verse. Or maybe our fingers, chilled by the unseasonable cold, started to hurt. Speaking of fingers, Markham delivered wonderfully lithe, responsive and jazzy accompaniment. Their long history of collaboration was very much evident: there wasn’t so much a need for communication between them; they were just, simply, ‘together’, performing. Amongst the encores, Foggy London Town, and we weren’t let out until we’d had the inevitable Summertime.

Once I’d relaxed into what the evening was about – catching a performer in the here and now, not reliving what had been – it was quite a special evening indeed.

Addendum

I could have done without her comments on the supposed ‘snobbishness’ of the classical music world on Newsnight that same evening (though to be fair, she did say ‘we’, not ‘they’, so at least she ‘owned’ it!). On the plus side, her heartwarming comments on gay marriage and, indeed, on religious conservatism (“it’s an oxymoron”, since all religion should be about love and acceptance) mean that I will graciously forgive her on this occasion…

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