It is a true treat to see a living legend like Jessye Norman perform live. At age 67, perhaps she fails to hit the high notes with the power that she did in Europe when she skyrocketed to opera stardom in the early ’70’s but she is still larger than life (both literally and figuratively) and much more entrancing as a performer than most people performing today. At 6’1″ built like a tanks with hands that would make a professional quarterback envious, Norman is an instant presence from her first footstep out of the wings. Masculine in her size and bold facial features, with a dramatic manner, it is easy to see why she is a darling of the drag set. Her voice and her four page program bio are equally impressive. But you can read about her accomplishments and honors elsewhere.
Norma and her accompanist, Mark Markham, presented a delightful program in tribute of American artists titled, “American Masters”. A bit shaky with her opening number, “Falling in Love” by Rogers and Hart, I was worried that it would be a night of horror as sometimes happens when a great takes a last gasp at a career. But Norman warmed up and woke up so that by the fourth number, Gershwin’s, “I Got Rhythm” she was “ON” and her hallmark uncategorizable style shown along with her scintilating personality. Norman simply brings a one-of-a-kind depth and breadth to her singing. Soft fuzzy warm tones tempered with strong decorated high notes with a dash of Southern comfort thrown in. “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain” was emotionally spectacular, a message to all to overcome obstacles and live life to the fullest. She absolutely beamed during the chorus though I failed to perceive this, a local musical production expert in the audience claimed it was off key. But the highlight of the first act was her closing number, “My Man’s Gone Now” from Gershwin’s, Porgy and Bess. The showtunes and standards were great but here Norman showed us her opera chops and boy, was she good!
Following a long intermission, the second act was more a tribute to some of Norman’s favorite American musical artists. Songs sung by Lena Horn, Odetta, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald plus several selections by Duke Ellington. Highlights were “Stormy Weather” , the best rendition of this song I have ever heard, “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”, in which she encouraged the audience to sing the “Do-whop” chorus part.
I loved that Markham was taller than Norman, which became apparent during a bow and mused that the audition notice for the gig must have called for pianist over 6’3″.
But what cam post bow was the reason for coming. The two best numbers of the evening were the encores, “Summertime” , (Duh, it is opera from one of her signature roles) and a musical memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was murdered 45 years ago to the day, “Steel Away to Jesus”. The crowd was entranced by both offerings, a few tears even fell during the final number in remembrance of Dr. King.
Norman and Markham received a standing ovation and several minutes of deserved enthusiastic applause. As they stepped off stage, I felt grateful for having spent a wonderful evening with one of the great artists and citizens of our time.