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Something Good Echoes

The Life of Jessye Norman

"The world has lost one of its great voices. Jessye Norman is showing all the angels how to sing. I had the privilege of collaborating with her several times. She was warm, generous and kind, with that glorious sound that was unmistakable. She deserves peace in her final dwelling place."

-Leonard Slatkin, DSO Music Director Laureate

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Over the years Jessye Norman joined the DSO for many performances, beginning with her DSO debut in July 1975 at Meadow Brook, singing arias by Mozart and Wagner. Her friendship had tremendous impact on DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons, who had the pleasure of touring with Jessye in Europe and collaborating with her on a variety of projects, and DSO Music Director Laureate Leonard Slatkin, pictured above with Jessye at Tanglewood. 

The following is an excerpt from an essay by Leslie Green written in tribute to Jessye and her late brother Dr. Silas Norman Jr., when they were honored at the DSO's 2016 Classical Roots celebration. 

 

If, as the saying goes, a life worth living is one lived for others, then Jessye Norman and her brother Dr. Silas Norman Jr. lived indeed.

Silas, the singer, physician and activist, and Jessye, an oft-awarded, legendary soprano, enhanced the lives of friends and strangers alike through performance, activism and philanthropy.

Two of six children, Silas and Jessye Norman began singing as young children in their hometown of Augusta, Ga. Their parents, Silas Norman Sr. and Janie King Norman, instilled in the family a love of music and learning, a respect for hard work and the importance of civil rights.

It was 1968; and the world was on fire with rallies, marches, sit-ins and riots. Educated in the importance of the Civil Rights movement, Jessye Norman engaged herself in the fight.

“I had participated in mass meetings and protest marches, carrying signs, exhorting NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, and lending my voice to the song concluding almost every gathering, Pete Seeger’s ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Ms. Norman writes in her biography Stand Up Straight and Sing!

Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Ms. Norman—a multi-award-winning operatic soprano known not for arias, oratorios and spirituals—discovered her calling.

She competed in the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition and to her surprise, she won. “It wasn’t really until I won the contest in Munich, where I was competing with people I did not know and who did not know me, that I thought there was a possibility of making a living doing this,” she explained.

“Making a living” is an understatement. The five-time Grammy Award winner, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, has been a force in the music world since her operatic debut in 1969 in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Ms. Norman responds to her many honors with humility.

Regarding the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, she said: “It was a lovely experience. When you have not wished for these experiences, and they simply come to your life unbidden, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s very humbling to think there are people considering you and your work when you are doing your dishes or picking up the dry cleaning.”

The disciplined, dedicated artist studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; and at U-M, where she was attending when the U.S. State Department chose her for the Bavarian Radio competition.

She has performed for at least two presidential inaugurations and has received more than 40 honorary doctorates and a plethora of international honors, including London’s Gramophone Award for her interpretation of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, New York City’s Handel Medallion, the Frederick Douglas Medal by the New York Urban League, an honorary professorship at the Central Music Conservatory of Beijing, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in recognition of her humanitarian and civic contributions and the 2010 National Medal of Arts. She was the youngest performer at age 50 to receive Kennedy Center Honors.

“That was an unusual thing for them to do,” she said. “I had been a participant of them honoring other people such as Sidney Poitier. When I received this information in the summer of ’97, I thought it was general information about the event itself. I had to read the letter two or three times to make sure I understood that I was being honored myself.”

At the Kennedy Center Honors reception, former President Bill Clinton captured Ms. Norman’s spirit well, saying: “The first song she ever performed in public was 'God Will Take Care of You'. Well, God was taking care of all us when he gave us Jessye Norman’s wondrous voice. From a church choir in Georgia to center stage at the Met, Jessye Norman has brought joy to music lovers and critics to their feet. Her voice has been called the greatest instrument in the world. Her greatness, however, lies not just in her sound, but in her soul.

“She has that rare gift for capturing in music truths of the human experience —truths that can never be fully expressed in words alone. Having brought new meaning to Mozart and Wagner, to Berlioz and Stravinsky, Jessye Norman remains an American diva. Indeed, when she sang 'The Star Spangled Banner' at my inauguration earlier this year, I thought the flag was buoyed by the waves of her voice. I must say, Jessye, you were a tough act to follow.”

Jessye Norman chronicles her life in her elegantly written, 2014 book Stand Up Straight and Sing! In it, she goes beyond list making and richly details her experiences growing up in the Jim Crow south along memorable performances and lyrics of her favorite songs.

Indeed, Jessye Norman has a love not only of the English language but of multiple languages. In addition to singing in German, Italian, Spanish and French, Ms. Norman fluently speaks each language. She did so, she said, by working hard and studying.

Asked how she pulled off two very different roles in Les Troyens at the Met, she had a similar response: “We do that with a great deal of preparation, a great deal of energy and a great deal of stamina. For anything that is challenging vocally and physically you have to be ready for it, and I was. So I was looking forward to it. There was Cassandra knowing Troy was going to fall and the queen wanting to bring her country back to its former glory. To have the opportunity was thrilling.”

Whether singing spirituals, church songs or arias, the vocalist said she gives herself thoroughly to whatever she is doing. That includes work with numerous nonprofits. Ms. Norman serves on the board of directors for The New York Public Library, is a member of the board of governors for the New York Botanical Garden, and serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, Howard University, the Lupus Foundation and Paine College. She is national spokesperson for The Lupus

Foundation and The Partnership for the Homeless and is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.

Her utmost source of “great pride and joy,” however, is the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta.

“It’s disgraceful that arts are falling away from the public schools,” she said. “Arts are still looked on as elitist rather than a necessary part of development.”

Now in its 13th year, the school offers underprivileged, gifted children ages 11-15 private tutoring in dance, drama, music, photography, visual arts, freestyle writing and costume design. “Educators tell us this period of maturation is crucial. This understanding of relationships with others and with the world is something they will look for in the rest of their lives if they don’t get it in this period.”

Amazingly, Jessye Norman’s large heart has room for more outreach. “Our social ills are at such a fever pitch that I feel drawn to be able to work in that sphere, not only in arts education. Considering things in New York state and New York City, we have more than 50 percent of young men of color that do not finish high schools. These are troubling things to know."

“I feel that this idea and sense of community is somehow being lost. It is important for all of us to be a part of something, and it is better to be a part of something good.” She added, “Rodney King said with poignancy, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ Whatever I might help us to do to help us get along, that is my goal.”

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42nd Annual Classical Roots Celebration March 6-7, 2020

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