Wednesday, September 08, 2010

San Francisco Symphony Gala 3: Jessye Norman

The nicest aspect to Tuesday's Symphony Gala was the presence of so many gorgeous older black women in the audience.

I am presuming they were there to see Jessye Norman, one of the greatest black divas in history, and indeed one of the greatest operatic divas of any color.

It also highlighted how rare their presence usually is at these Society events.

Though I've heard Jessye Norman on recordings and radio broadcasts from the New York Metropolitan, I had never heard her live. I was rather dreading it on Tuesday evening because the word on the intertubes was that her voice was in shreds from age and use.

In the first half of the program, Norman and a small contingent from the Symphony Chorus sang a 1947 setting of the first book of Genesis by Aaron Copland called "In The Beginning." The music couldn't have been duller and more foursquare, but the chorus sang it beautifully and the solo part for soprano sat perfectly in Norman's current voice. She filled the huge hall with beautiful sound and I thanked my lucky stars to have actually heard her voice live while there was something left.

The second half started with Jessye in Red doing jazz, namely some Duke Ellington tunes, and it wasn't successful. The two songs that were closer to slow spirituals were fine, but whenever the music called for quick vocal agility, she ended up scooping and hooting rather painfully. Plus, she's not really a jazz singer. She is/was one of the great singers of Western classical music of our time.

As various Loge patrons sneaked out, the orchestra finished by playing Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2."

Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra played the entire one-hour ballet last year, and they seemed to have the music in their bones.

It was a wonderful performance, and propelled us to the Fabulous Society Tent for more wining and dining and people watching.


Nancy Ewart said...

I was lucky enough to hear Ms. Norman back in her glory days. Her voice could have filled the hall and had plenty left over. But sic transit gloria mundi. It's a rare singer who keeps the voice after a certain age. I'm also sorry to hear that she's attempting jazz. Very few classically trained singers can pull that off. Still, what a wonderful evening. One of the photos you've taken of the black women looks like one of the ladies that I knew back at UC - one of the few class acts in that poisonous place.

Sibyl said...

JAZZ!?! No, Jessye, No! Speed and agility were never the best part of her singing, and jazz isn't so known for its huge, legato lines filled with shimmer and grandeur, usually. Erg (oh Lord, she didn't try to scat did she?). But goodness how beautiful she looks. Years ago I'd have killed for her voice, now I would kill to age as gracefully as she.

Civic Center said...

Dear Sibyl: You got it just right.