The Nation - Sunday, May 09, 2004
Calling last Sunday’s Jessye Norman: A Voice for Peace charity concert a once-in-a-lifetime experience is an understatement. The woman heralded as the 'greatest soprano of our generation' did not sing just with her whole body – but with her body and soul.
From the first note in Richard Strauss' 'Heimliche Aufforderung' to the last one in George Gershwin's 'Summertime', she filled every inch of the Thai Cultural Centre's Main Hall with her divinely enchanting and tremendously vigorous voice.
Whether performing a dramatic operatic excerpt, a playful folk song or a soulful spiritual, Norman, standing close to the grand piano, used not only her voice but also her hand gestures and facial expressions. Clearly, her selections were not simply written songs, but lively conversations with her audience.
Whether singing in German, Spanish, French or English, she was always success-fully conveyed the song's meaning. With her special attention to the details of languages, she transcended cultural boundaries. Because she sounded like a native speaker of many languages, some members of the audience may have forgotten that she is an American singer; but all will remember she is an ambassador for world peace.
More significantly, Norman greatly enjoyed what she was doing at each and every moment and, as a result, the audience was increasingly elated with her effortless performance.
From her entrance to her curtain call, her warm smiles clearly indicated how much she loved her audience and how strongly she wanted them to not only enjoy singing but also to understand her message.
Mark Markham provided more than piano accompaniment. His sound was integral to Norman's voice. They have collaborated for such a long time that they know every move the other makes.
Yet their performance was filled with vividness and spared many moments for fresh surprise – it never for a second sounded like a thoroughly rehearsed act.
Thunderous applause was heard after each number. At the end of the scheduled program's last number – Margaret Bonds' arrangement of 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands' – the audience gave a standing ovation, after which Norman capped her Bangkok debut with a popular number from American modern classic 'Porgy and Bess'.
Then, following an even longer standing ovation, Norman reappeared twice on stage. Although it is not uncommon in her concerts elsewhere, Norman may be pleased to know that a standing ovation is rare among Thai concert-goers, especially at the country's flag-ship performing arts venue.
Also commendable were Somtow Sucharitkul's concise programme notes and Visanu Eurchukiati's precise poetry and libretto translations that both helped the audience enjoy the concert even more.
Quibbles? Certainly not that the air-conditioning was turned off while Norman was singing. (Paper fans were distributed with the programme, although few were used.) But the organiser's statement that the concert would begin at 7pm when it actually started 90 minutes later proved annoying. Did the organiser assume that Thais are natural-born late-comers?
The concert, commemorating the Sixth Cycle Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, was attended by Queen Sirikit and HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana. Proceeds for the concert will benefit HM the Queen's Support Foundation.
Pawit.M @ chula.ac.th