C1735. KLAUS TENNSTEDT Cond. Detroit S.O.: Siegfried Idyll; Meistersinger - Prelude; w.JESSYE NORMAN & RICHARD KNESS: Tannhäuser & Die Walküre - Excerpts (all Wagner), Live Performance, 26 July, 1979, Meadow Brook Music Festival. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-858. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Jessye Norman, the majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera and houses around the world, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.
In a career that began in the late-1960s, Ms. Norman sang the title role in Verdi’s AIDA, Wagner’s heroines, characters in Janacek, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in LES TROYENS by Berlioz, in which she made her Met debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her ‘one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage’.
A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss. In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of THE NEW YORK TIMES likened her voice to a ‘grand mansion of sound’. ‘It defines an extraordinary space’, he wrote. ‘It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse’.
As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with THE TIMES. ‘Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice’. In her memoir, StanD UP STRAIGHT AND SING! (2014), she recounted meeting instances of racism. ‘Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?’ she told THE TIMES in 2014.
Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture. ‘My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one - a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium - right there in their house’, she wrote in her memoir. ‘It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults’.
She began listening to opera on the radio as a child. ‘I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after’, she wrote. ‘For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already’.
Appearances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses followed, and she quickly became one of the busiest opera divas on the scene, a fixture of galas and benefits. An accomplished recitalist, she made records of vocal works by Mahler, Debussy and Strauss. She also ranged backward in time to the Baroque, displaying a remarkable command of a broad range of styles. She was famous for saying ‘pigeonholes are for pigeons’.
It was not until 1983 that she made a belated Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s LES TROYENS. By all accounts she stole the show, winning over ‘Monday night’s audience and Tuesday morning’s critics’, as THE TIMES reported in its account of her ‘triumph’. She rose early the next day to appear on NBC’s ‘Today’ show. ‘The only person in my family who couldn’t come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia’, she said at the time. ‘I wanted to give her a look at me’.
Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts. When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her in THE TIMES as ‘one of our most musicianly singers’ and added: ‘She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top’.
In a sign of her international stature, Ms. Norman was tapped to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day - which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalog of opera, lieder, spirituals and recitals. One of her most acclaimed recordings was a classic account of Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. ‘Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss’ valedictory utterances’, GRAMOPHONE wrote in its review.
In person she cut an imposing figure, dressing dramatically and speaking with a diva’s perfect diction. When she entered a room, heads turned. And even after she left the opera stage she remained a restless, probing artist. She was socially engaged. In 2003, Ms. Norman and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation created the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta for underserved students. That city will rename a street Jessye Norman Boulevard in October; she had planned to attend the ceremony.
Among her final projects was ‘Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!’, a tribute to Jones, who in 1893 became the first African-American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall - and who had bristled at her stage name, ‘the Black Patti’, which compared her to the white diva Adelina Patti. ‘Thirty years out of slavery for African-Americans in this country, here she was on the stage of Carnegie Hall’, Ms. Norman said in an interview last year.
In her memoir, Ms. Norman recalled one of her own earliest stabs at singing opera in front of an audience. She was in junior high school when, at a teacher’s urging, she performed the aria ‘My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice’ from Saint-Saëns’ SAMSON ET DALILA. She had been singing it in English at church functions and supermarket openings, but for the school performance her teacher had her learn it in its original French. ‘I do think that if you can stand up and sing in French in front of an assembly full of middle-schoolers’, Ms. Norman wrote, ‘then you can do just about anything’.”
- Daniel J. Wakin & Michael Cooper, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 Sept., 2019
“Because he spent the beginning of his career in East Germany, Klaus Tennstedt was virtually unknown in the West until he was in his late 40s. But his international career took off after he left East Germany in 1971. From the time he made his first appearances in North America, with the Toronto and Boston Symphony orchestras in 1974, he was regarded as an uncommonly probing, expressive conductor of works from the mainstream Romantic repertory.
Mr. Tennstedt was born in Merseburg, Germany, on 6 June, 1926. When he was 15, he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied violin, piano and music theory. He also studied in Dresden during World War II, and he told one interviewer that after the firebombing of Dresden in 1944, he was in the fire brigade and assigned to dig bodies out of the rubble.
In 1948 he was appointed concertmaster of the Halle Municipal Theater Orchestra, where his father was a violinist. Four years later he began conducting the orchestra, and he soon became its music director. In 1958, he became music director of the Dresden Opera and in 1962 he took over the Schwerin State Orchestra and the Schwerin State Theater. During the 1960s, Mr. Tennstedt had an active touring schedule in East Germany, and was a frequent guest of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Berlin Radio Orchestra. He also performed in the Soviet Union and in Czechoslovakia. When preparing for a tour in 1971, Mr. Tennstedt found that his passport had been mistakenly stamped with an exit visa for the West. He left East Germany for Sweden, announced his intention not to return, and persuaded the East German Government to allow his wife to join him. In Sweden, he became the director of the Stora Theater in Goteborg and the conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm. In 1972, he became director of the Kiel Opera in West Germany.
Mr. Tennstedt's first break in North America occurred after the death of Karel Ancerl, the director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When the orchestra's managing director, Walter Homburger, went to Europe in search of a replacement, he read some reviews of Mr. Tennstedt's work in Kiel. After hearing him conduct Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, he hired him for a series of Toronto concerts in May 1974. He made his Boston Symphony début later that year. [This outstanding performance, described as a 'once in a lifetime' event, in which Tennstedt gave the Boston audience and radio listeners a positively electrifying account of Bruckner's 8th, is still talked about in Boston to this day! After rehearsing, the orchestra spontaneously broke into applause during a coffee break.]
Mr. Tennstedt became principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic in 1977, served as principal guest conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1979 to 1982, and returned to the London Philharmonic as its music director from 1983 to 1987. After he relinquished the post, he became the orchestra's conductor laureate.”
- Allan Kozinn, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 Jan., 1998