She made cynics swoon and skeptics burst: Jessye Norman, along with pianist Mark Markham, serenaded eager listeners with love songs from the Great American Songbook and 20th century France. Garnering a standing ovation before and after the performance, Ms Norman, who turns 70 later this year, is undoubtedly one of the most beloved sopranos alive today.

From the seductive verse of the French cafe in Erik Satie’s Je te veux to the cold dejection of the Gershwin Brothers’ But Not For Me, Ms Norman arouse an uncommon range of character through deliberate artistic freedoms. She would command entire songs in a reverently mellow dynamic, while still sculpting phrases through subtle changes in volume. Occasionally driving into a full operatic sound, Ms Norman also allowed her instrument to venture into contemporary and jazz techniques, sliding to pitches or imitating speech patterns.

Jessye Norman © Carol Friedman
Jessye Norman
© Carol Friedman

Naturally for any singer bold enough to give a recital after a long career, her pitch was not always reliably accurate; however, her intention was clear from the start. Although she has always been categorized as a soprano, her low register would make any mezzo envious. Ms Norman is not afraid to lean into her chest resonance, and she made this quite clear in Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night. The majority of her repertoire was sung at the lower end of her register and never really extended higher than a high "A".

Ms Norman’s choice of tempi favored languid adagios to effervescent allegros, but this decision allowed for diverging interpretations. For instance, her rendition of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Falling in Love With Love offered a completely new perspective on the work; it did not portray the a young girl falling in love for the first time, but rather a wise soul reminiscing on a lifetime of loving. Likewise, Stormy Weather by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler unraveled a slow blues, balmy rather than frigid, maintaining a discreet dynamic quality until the very end when the piano’s crescendoing bass line transformed into a gospel-like processional.

Pianist Mark Markham appears to be any singer’s dream companion. Versatile and responsive in any situation, Markham yielded a spectrum of atmospheres for Ms Norman to explore. Mandolin and guitar virtuoso, Colin Davin also played on the French songs for a touch of color. Completing the cohort, bass legend Ron Carter, formerly of the Miles Davis Quintet, joined the mix for I Got Rhythm and performed in duet with Ms Norman on Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady. Carter’s imaginative contrapuntal improvisational jazz style in combination with Ms Norman’s slithering melodic line made for a rather avant-garde performance of the jazz standard.

Jessye Norman’s stage etiquette is the very model of recital conduct as she carries her head with confidence. The recital ended with a much anticipated “Habanera” from Carmen, the only opera-derived piece on the program. Sung slower than usual and without a jaunty orchestral accompaniment, the song became a restrained troubadour song, truly unlike any other performance. Ms Norman encored with My Funny Valentine and the final verses of Hooray for Love! Despite a lengthy plea for more encores, the crowd’s energy reverberated with Gershwin: “Who could ask for anything more?”