Music review: Jessye Norman helps launch Rachael Worby’s Muse/ique


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The low-peaked roof of Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium blew off its spindly columns as soprano Jessye Norman unleashed her amazing powers Saturday night. And for the record, Norman was singing outside that Arabian-styled building, on a stage set up on the lush green lawn. The beloved soprano from Georgia was helping conductor Rachael Worby debut her new ensemble, Muse/ique, in a crossover program that included songs by Gershwin, Ellington and Monk, and instrumental music by John Williams and other composers.

Norman’s entrance, from the side of the lawn, gave cause for concern, however. Singing “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” Norman sounded wobbly, edgy at the top and patchy in color. She still had volcanic power over and above the miking; even so, one worried how much of her fabled velvety voice remained after largely departing her operatic career. Still, she got an instant standing ovation from the 600 or so guests who had been enjoying alfresco dinners at comfortable tables arranged on the grounds.


There were other moments of iffy pitch and dry color, especially when she sang softly, as in Gershwin’s “Love Walked In” or Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.’ But Norman showed she could easily both power up and soar, and also pull in, get down and put over a song with sassiness and stylish scat singing, whatever the piece.

She sang a sensuous, languid account of ‘Summertime’ and a pained, wailing version of ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ both from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ She sold another Gershwin hit, ‘The Man I Love,’ with quiet smoothness. She sang Ellington’s ‘I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good’ with conviction, and she and Worby quickly got the audience to finger-snap and doo-ah along to her bouncy, buoyant singing of Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.’ Perhaps her most touching and personal moments, however, came in three a cappella spirituals (‘I Want Two Wings,’ ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘On My Journey Now’), which were prefaced by actor Angela Bassett reading a Maya Angelou poem.

At the end, after her inspiring performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ TV host Tavis Smiley presented Norman with a small gift that appeared, from its familiar robin’s-egg blue packaging, as if it came from Tiffany & Co.

For her part, Worby accompanied throughout with sensitivity and verve. The former director of the Pasadena Pops, who resigned last year after 11 seasons, has fashioned a flexible ensemble of about 35 musicians, including concertmaster Roger Wilkie, clarinetist Donald Foster and trumpeter Marissa Benedict, all of whom got chances to shine.

Worby’s eclectic approach was signaled by starting the program with an intriguingarrangement of “America the Beautiful,” sung by members of the Pasadena Master Chorale, instead of the expected National Anthem. Then bobbing with energy, she launched into an orchestral setting of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Watch out, she seemed to say: Here’s something new.

The program also included short premieres by Ben Lear (‘Boxer,’ a moody tone poem) and Peter Knell (‘Charged Particles,’ a bluesy encounter with rhythmic minimalism). Caltech professor Julia Greer made a fun analogy between particle physics and humankind in her ‘Nanomechanics Mash Up’ rap to the prelude of Bach’s Partita No. 2.


Despite a troubled economy, with start-up arts groups facing major struggles, Worby remains confident. “We’re here to stay,” she said. Muse/ique’s next concert is a free program Sept. 11 at the Pasadena Civic Center.


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Marvin Hamlisch named conductor of the Pasadena Pops

-- Chris Pasles