A truly gala evening
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Richard Strauss, Antonin Dvorák, Gustav Mahler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, Henry Purcell, Georges Bizet, Giuseppe Verdi, Pietro Mascagni, J. Rosamund Johnson, Nathaniel Dett, Moses Hogan
Pumeza Matshikiza, Nina Stemme, Sondra Radvanovsky (sopranos), Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano), Cécile McLorin Salvant (jazz singer), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Ryan Speedo Green (bass baritone)
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor (director), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Jean-Philippe Tremblay, Bernard Labadie, Sir Donald Runnicles, Johannes Debus (conductors)
J. Norman, C. McLorin Salvant (© Kenneth Chou Photography)
The Glenn Gould Foundation aspires to make the Glenn Gould Prize the “Nobel Prize of music”. They certainly assembled a grand event (title: The Voice of Jessye Norman) to celebrate their 12th laureate. As it turned out, this presentation gala became one of the many events during Black History Month. Students from the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her home town of Augusta, Georgia were present.
Leading up to the gala, Ms Norman spent 10 days or so in Toronto taking part in several events, such as giving a masterclass at the University of Toronto (overflow audience there) and participating in a day-long seminar at the Toronto Public Library, Black Opera: Uncovering Musical History. (Ms Norman has been spearheading a revival of interest in the pioneering African-American soprano Sissieretta Jones.) While it was sad to see her in a wheelchair, there is absolutely no diminution of her eloquence, intelligence and graciousness.
The first performer of the evening was South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, bravely (and impressively) opening with Richards Strauss’s “Cäcilie”, a song firmly linked to Jessye Norman for anyone who heard her sing it. She then sang the traditional Xhosa song ”Oongqothwane” (aka the “Click Song”), with its glottal clicks. Then back to European repertoire with Antonín Dvorák’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka.
Next up was US bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green, displaying a rich, dark timbre with “Urlicht” from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn and then in a personable presentation of Figaro’s aria “Aprite un po’quegli occhi” from Mozart’s opera.
Closing the first half was the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde leading to the Liebestod mesmerizingly sung by Nina Stemme, with the orchestra led by Sir Donald Runnicles. Eloquent lighting was a feature of the evening, particularly in this segment.
The second half opened with the presentation of the Glenn Gould Protegé Prize. Ms Norman’s choice was the jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant who has just won her second Grammy Award. She treated us to a playful performance of Harry Warren’s “If You feel like Singing, Sing”, accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner.
The evening’s glitter quotient soared with the appearance of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta who sang Dido’s “When I am Laid in Earth” followed by Carmen’s seguidilla (“Près des remparts de Séville”), cleverly staged with tenor Rodrick Dixon as Don José. Mr Dixon then sang “Celeste Aïda”, followed by the siciliana (“O Lola, ch’ai di latti la commisa”) fromCavalleria rusticana. He then sat down at the piano and accompanied himself singing J. Rosamond Johnson’s intense arrangement of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve seen”.
Further celebrating the Black musical experience was the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (named in honour of the African-Canadian composer) under their founder-director Brainerd Blyden-Taylor. They performed an a capella arrangement of Dett’s “Go Not Far From Me O God” and Moses Hogan’s arrangements of “The Battle of Jericho” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”.
Then it was back to opera of the grandest sort with Sondra Radvanovsky singing Aïda’s “Ritorna vincitor” followed by Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”. This earned a lot of applause which was then topped by Jessye Norman’s return to the stage whereupon she sang, jazz-style (i.e., with improvised embellishments and use of a microphone), Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” accompanied by Mr Fortner and joined by Cécile McLorin Salvant at the end.
Jean-Philippe Tremblay conducted seven of the pieces, with Bernard Labadie conducting the Purcell and Mozart numbers, Sir Donald Runnicles the Wagner, and Johannes Debus conducting Sondra Radvanovsky’s arias. Viggo Mortenson (chair of the nine-member jury who selected Ms Norman) gave a nicely succinct welcome although several other people involved with the prize felt the need to make rather redundant statements of their own. Still, it is wonderful that the prize is receiving widespread support; one of its biggest sponsors, for example, is Unifor, the trade union representing Canada’s autoworkers.
The announcement of the prize last April was accompanied by its own musical occasion. We can anticipate similar events when the winner of the next Glenn Gould Prize is revealed.