Guess who's coming to town?

Bangkok Post, Outlook - Thursday, April 15, 2004

Although the word on the street is that these are tough times for classical music, with CD catalogues shrinking and orches­tras disbanding, we are experiencing a kind of golden age where the quality of performance is concerned. Concert-goers today take almost for granted the artistry of a generation of singers and instrumental soloists easily as gifted as those who became legends in the days when listening to and playing classical music were a central part of social life.

Many of them are specialists who concentrate on a particular repertoire. Among singers, for example, there are certain artists whose names are linked tightly with Italian Romantic opera, Baroque music, Wagner, French chansons or atonal modern works. Then there are those who range across the centuries and styles, bringing their personal insights to performances of every-thing from folk songs to Bizet to Webern.

The American soprano Jessye Norman is one of the finest of these versatile and adventurous singers. Blessed with acute musical instincts and a beautiful voice of great power and flexibility, she is equipped to interpret almost anything, and she has put these talents to work by constantly extending her repertoire in new directions throughout her career, just as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did.

The recordings that Norman has made to date cover so wide a range that even her most avid fans may have trouble keeping up.

Those who know her performances of orches­tral songs by Mahler and Strauss, including one of the most famous accounts of the Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder, may have yet to discover that she is at least as fine an interpretation of the French repertoire. Others who have come to know her art through her Offenbach, Chausson, Faure and Ravel performances (including a knock-out, best-ever recording of Ravel's Chansons Madecasses) may not know that she is probably the greatest living interpreter of Schoenberg's atonal Expressionist monodrama, Erwartung.

Then there are her discs of spirituals, of Purcell, of Gershwin. Outside of the recording studio the picture becomes even more diverse. Recently she has been singing the role of Emilia Marty, the 337-year-old heroine of Janacek's The Makro­pulos Case. Boulez is said to be composing a piece for her, a prospect that might give less intrepid artists a case of nerves.

Here in Bangkok, most of us have come to know Norman's art through her recordings. But now that Toshiba has arranged for her to perform here on May 2, we will have a chance to experience it more directly.

The programme she has prepared for her recital here covers a lot of musical territory. Accompanied on the piano by Mark Markham, she will sing three songs by Richard Strauss, Heimliche Aufforderung and the popular Morgen!, both from Op. 27, and Zueignung, Op.10, No.1,

The Siete canciones populares espanolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs) by Manuel de Falla come from a very different musical world. Extro­verted numbers like Polo are in bright, primary colours, but some of us will be especially eager to hear the more intimate, dreamy songs like Asturiana, which can haunt you for days after you hear it.

Two selections from Bizet's Carmen, including the greatest-hit Habanera, will bring another change of atmosphere, and finally there will be a selection of spirituals,' including On My Journey Now, Oh Glory and He Got the Whole World In His Hands.

It should be a memorable evening. But varied as the programme is, it will show only a part of Jessye Norman's musical personality. If she were giving a second recital she might have chosen something by Michel Legrand or Duke Ellington and some Berg songs, or maybe a Wagner programme.

Anyone who attends her concert and leaves the hall wanting to hear more can find a good selection on CD. There are enough fine Jessye Norman performances available to allow listeners to keep discovering new aspects of this remarkable artist for a long time to come.

Ung-aang Talay