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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Glenn Gould Gala Does Justice To Jessye Norman

By Arthur Kaptainis on February 21, 2019

Twelfth Glenn Gould Prize Gala Concert in honour of Jessye Norman
(l-r) Iconic American singer, opera star and activist Jessye Norman accepts the Twelfth Glenn Gould Prize at a celebratory award ceremony and concert in her honour. Viggo Mortensen, Chair of the Twelfth Glenn Gould Prize Jury. (Photo: Kenneth Chou)

Yes, she sang, and sounded magnificent. It might be an exaggeration to say that the unannounced climax of the Glenn Gould Prize Gala Concert Honouring Jessye Norman (to give the event on Wednesday its formal title) made us forget all that came before, but this is because what came before was so memorable.

It was the sort of evening of which it might be said that the parts were greater than the whole. Many ceremonial and demographic requirements had to be fulfilled, and the result was an agreeable miscellany.

We needed Canadians, Americans, the young and the established, a gamut of ancestries and musical genres and at least one representative from outside Europe and the Americas. This was the South African Pumeza Matshikiza, who started the musical proceedings in the Four Seasons Centre with the COC Orchestra in the pit under Jean-Philippe Tremblay, the first of four conductors.

Classed by some as a lyric soprano, this singer seemed to have more steel in her voice than the designation would imply, as well as something of the soprano/mezzo crossover power that has made Norman herself such a distinctive musical force. Both Strauss’s Cäcilie and the Song to the Moon from Dvořák’s Rusalka could have used some fine tuning, but the traditional Xhosa song between them was a thing of wonder, as vocal clicks punctuated the jubilant line as decisively as might so many snare-drum taps.

(from left) Twelfth Glenn Gould Prize laureate Jessye Norman sings with Cécile McLorin Salvant, the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize winner. (Photo: Kenneth Chou)

Next came Ryan Speedo Green, a native of Virginia whose life story has been told on 60 Minutes. I really should watch more TV. Whatever his history, this bass-baritone combined a firm tone and dignified bearing with enough emotional range to encompass Mahler’s soul-searching “Urlicht” (which we normally hear in the Second Symphony as sung by a contralto or mezzo) and Mozart’s sardonic “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” from The Marriage of Figaro. It is a good sign when a singer can underline “No, no, no, no, no” with such vitality.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta
Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta (Photo: Kenneth Chou)

The second half started with the presentation of the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize (as chosen by Norman) to Cécile McLorin Salvant, a Florida native with a sweet voice, a true ear and a résumé that includes multiple jazz Grammy awards. She tossed off a light number with pianist Sullivan Fortner. Next up was the Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, who has been making strides in Europe. After a sombre Dido’s Lament (Purcell) she applied her handsome tone, plus a good deal of rubato, to the Séguidilla from Bizet’s Carmen. The famous number was engagingly acted out, as Giunta kept her arms seemingly bound behind her, until her “release” by Rodrick Dixon as the understandably distracted Don José.

This robust American tenor then had his set. He ignored Verdi’s notorious (and arguably unreasonable) pianissimo direction in the final B flat of “Celeste Aida” but still ably balanced the aria’s stentorian and lyric elements. There followed passionate if not exactly Italianate Siciliana from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and a mesmerizing performance of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, effective precisely because of the restraint with which it was delivered. Dixon provided his own lucid piano accompaniment. We have come a long way from the era when tenors were considered exceptional if they could actually read music.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale directed by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor
The Nathaniel Dett Chorale directed by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor (Photo: Kenneth Chou)

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale under Brainerd Blyden-Taylor offered three busy a cappella arrangements, including one by this Canadian group’s namesake. I prefer simpler textures. At any rate, the evening ultimately belonged to the veterans: Sondra Radvanovsky, a member of the Glenn Gould jury, delivering “Ritorna Vincitor!” (Aida) with grand tone and rich emotion. This much-loved American-Canadian soprano summoned similar qualities (along with classy acting) in “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca, adjusting her tone in small ways to invoke verismo style. The B flat of this aria might well have been the note of the night, but for me, the biggest chills came courtesy of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as sung with impeccable timing and boundless intensity by Nina Stemme. Conductor Donald Runnicles elicited a wonderfully undulating orchestral accompaniment (if accompaniment is an adequate word for this music). The Swedish soprano materialized alluringly under the stage lights after the Prelude of the opera. Production values were good all night. The COC’s butterfly-themed set for Così fan tutte did not seem too incongruous.

Celebrated Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky,
Celebrated Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, (Photo: Kenneth Chou)

Back to Jessye Norman. Seated centre stage in a wheelchair, the American soprano had spoken voluminously and well before the music started on humanitarian ideals to a crowd that made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in sheer numbers. Yet it was her return to the stage with “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story that most will treasure as the defining moment of the evening. She used a microphone – not inappropriately given the Broadway genesis of this number – but held it at a distance. I sensed that the sounds were genuine Jessye. And what sounds they were: subtle, contoured, full, sincere. Suddenly all the pro-forma talk of great artistry became palpable and real. Sensing that less would be more, Salvant, standing by her side, made a discreet contribution. Fortner was a graceful accompanist. The hopeful lyrics were soothing in an age of strife. Bernstein was an apt choice also because of well-known role he played in Gould’s short performing career.

It was not clear why so many maestri were required, but results were fine. Bernard Labadie has a way of transforming a modern orchestra into a supple early-music band with a wave of his hand. COC music director Johannes Debus was on duty for Radvanovsky’s performances.

In short, this was a fitting tribute. Speeches were not overlong. Credit is owing to the jury chairman, the American actor Viggo Mortensen, for taking the trouble to say “bonjour.” French is an official language of Canada and one that Norman speaks fluently. Something to keep in mind for the next gala.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
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