By Sam Heyman
Arts and Life Editor
Every year, as the spring semester comes to a close, campus is treated to a variety of “finales.” On Sunday, April 7, Jessye Norman’s performance in Swasey Chapel marked the final performance of this year’s Vail Series, but also the last performance that Lorraine Wales, founding director of Vail Series, will oversee during her tenure at Denison, as she will be retiring at the end of the year.
That this fact was announced by President Knobel, who will also be stepping down as the college’s president at the end of the year, added gravity to this already momentous occasion.
Unfortunately, the power was out on campus, so the fact that Norman had to perform sans mic support, in the acoustic nightmare that is Swasey Chapel gave some audience members a reason to worry.
But as Dr. Knobel said himself, “When you have no power, it’s good to have a powerful singer”—and powerful Norman was.
In the recent past, the Vail stage has seen some impressive instrumental acts, such as the triumphantly jazzy Chucho Valdes Quartet last Fall, leaving Norman and her accompanying pianist, Mark Markham, some big shoes to fill.
Between Norman’s rich, classically trained soprano and Markham’s brilliant skill at the piano, the two were able to do so admirably, even though the expanse of the Chapel space sometimes swallowed Norman’s sound when she dipped into lower, quieter notes.
Many of the songs performed by Norman were songs written by masters of musical theatre in the 20th century—George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington—and sometimes, as in her performance of The Sound of Music’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” this selection of music seemed tailor made for Norman’s voice.
However—and this is undoubtedly a consequence of the lack of amplification support—in some songs, such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the operatic quality of Norman’s voice drowned out the lyrics of the song she was singing, giving the audience ample reason to read along in their programs. Fortunately the elegance and consistent resonance of Markham’s piano helped to make up for this unfortunate reality.
The most impressive and entertaining songs of the afternoon followed the intermission, as the power returned to Swasey. Fittingly, Norman began the second half of her performance on a light note (“My Baby Just Cares For Me”) and immediately followed with the compellingly tense “Another Man Done Gone,” performed a capella save for the pounding of Markham’s fist on the piano. With “Mack The Knife,” the audience got a musical taste of the radiant, jovial character that had been captured in advertisements for the event, but here felt genuinely and energetically alive.
Junior Tyler Gibson described Norman’s performance as “incredible,” saying, “There was so much expression, I learned so much just from watching her.”
Gibson’s observation of the emotional power of Norman’s voice was not lost on this writer. During her encore, Norman conducted the crowd in accompanying her in a poignant rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a live-music experience audience members won’t soon forget.
It would have been great to have been truly surrounded by sound, but thanks to the awe-inducing power of Norman’s voice, and the reverent awe with which her performance was received, the musical mastery expected of Vail performances was still delivered in full force.