The Schubert Club celebrated its 130th anniversary Tuesday night at Ordway Center with a recital from soprano Jessye Norman, who has been presented by the club for almost 40 years. At 67, Norman is approaching the end of her career. She wisely forewent her usual classical repertoire, but delivered in a program of show tunes and jazz classics.
Her voice was not the robust dramatic soprano that it was in her heyday, but in such songs as Harold Arlen’s miraculous “Sleepin’ Bee,” she demonstrated the artistry to color each word and note with meaning. Her dramatic reading of “My Man’s Gone Now,” from “Porgy and Bess,” was riveting.
She was particularly successful with the more operatic selections, such as Richard Rodgers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” But she was capable of scaling back her voice, in Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” to create something simple and intimate. She would sing pianissimo and just draw the audience to her.
At times, however, her voice became quite thin and hard to hear, even with a mic. On occasion, she added such elaborate ornamentations that she overwhelmed the songs.
Norman came into her own in the second half, her smoky lower register well suited to the program of jazz standards. She was sultry and sexy in “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and with “Another Man Done Gone,” captured the suffering with unvarnished dignity. She turned “Mack the Knife” into a brilliant example of musical storytelling, with scat singing that rivaled Ella Fitzgerald’s.
She concluded with a set of Duke Ellington. In “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” it was clear that her voice was getting tired, but she still made “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” into a plaintive elegy. And she delivered a raucous sing-along version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
As accompanist, pianist Mark Markham was a strong collaborator, ably supporting Norman, but also giving his performance a strongly improvisational feel. And he created an exquisite mood in his solo, Ellington’s “Meditation” for piano.
This was a star performance, sung with intelligence and joy. It was good to hear Norman again, even in the twilight of her career. We won’t see her like again anytime soon.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music and theater.