In Vermont last summer a tape was on hand of the American soprano Jessye Norman singing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, a work composed when this German cultural hero, seemingly of the 19th century, was barely a year away from his death at age 85 in 1949.
To one who had not heard Jessye Norman before, the whole notion of her singing Strauss, especially these songs, sounded preposterous. How could this young (now 40), Georgia-born woman possibly grasp what a magisterial German man of another world had to say in what he frankly intended as the musical statement to end his earthly days?
But of course the tape was fantastic. Jessye Norman has a huge voice, full of shadow and nuance, one of infinite precision and control. The sound was ravishing, verging on painful, even more so when the volume was low and the tone expectant than when she let out the power that only an artist of her gifts, and dimensions, can produce.
Under the sound was an intelligence that obliterated the gap between her circumstances and Strauss's. She had to have fathomed every bit of the celebration and weariness, the sense of a cultural era and life cycle ending, that he had poured into his Last Songs.
In Vermont there was a headset, and I wired up and walked under the maples and dying elms, turning up the volume as kids do, straining to hear everything, wondering how anyone could sing in her way.
"Children," I said to the resident skeptics, "Jessye Norman has changed my life."
A familiar response, indicating something short of full acceptance of parental judgment, followed.
Undeterred: "She has given me a new sense of what the human voice can be."
Ten, 15, 20 and more times I played the tape and, later, listened to the record, each time either recognizing the familiar or perceiving something new: a sweet roller coaster. The inner ear makes its own secret tapes and they click on without notice. I would be going along somewhere and suddenly realize I was listening to Jessye Norman singing the Strauss: liquid, golden, heart-stopping.
The beauty of it made me suppress, though never entirely, the nagging recollection that Richard Strauss, for all his greatness, had accepted the presidency of the state music bureau established by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, in November 1933, and more.
"Through many joys and sorrows/ We've travelled, hand in hand," reads the concluding Song, entitled "In Evening's Glow." "From wandering let us rest now,/ Here in this silent land."
You will catch, then, the tension in the first balcony of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last Friday evening. Jessye Norman was to sing the Four Last Songs with the National Symphony. Would she fulfill the lavish expectations I had laid upon her? Or would the infatuation of August yield to the disenchantment of January? And -- an important practical consideration -- would the memory of the recorded voice clutter the first hearing of the real one?
Regal in gown and gait, Jessye Norman came on stage. Conductor Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos waited for her to motion that she was ready. The orchestra opened and Jessye Norman entered into a performance that Post critic Joseph McLellan, who knows, the next morning pronounced "transcendent."
The sound. The phrasing. The ensemble with the orchestra: weaving of a seamlessness surely beyond even Richard Strauss's imagining. At the several passages where she altered the reading familiar from her recording -- a little turn here, a fresh pulse there -- the change was so self-evidently deliberate and right as to make one giddy at the hearing of it. The voice glided in and out of the score the way, I thought, someone with a loosening grip on life might cautiously test letting go. I, not alone, was in tears.
Orchestra players are the ultimate tough guys, soldiering on as prima donna conductors and soloists come and go. The National Symphony on Friday evening led the audience in calling back Jessye Norman. Her bows were slow, deep. Her presence washed through the hall. She was entitled to realize she had won, hard, every ounce of tribute flowing to her.
Jessye Norman, you have changed a life.