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Jessye Norman and Vail Series founding director Lorraine Wales

A former Vail Series intern reminisces

I vividly remember going to Lorraine’s office for the first time, at the start of my sophomore year, and asking her whether she had any use for me as an intern with the Vail Series. Fortunately for me, she did. Over the rest of my time at Denison, there are few things that I enjoyed more than sitting in Lorraine’s office chatting about the artists she was planning to bring and about music in general—something that we’ve continued to do regularly over the phone since my graduation.

I am still amazed by the caliber and breadth of artists that Lorraine has brought to Denison and the program that she has built; it’s so fitting that her tenure should end with someone like Jessye Norman. What has always impressed me the most about the Vail Series is just how much the artists enjoy performing at Denison, and I was reminded of this a little while ago.

Since leaving Denison, I’ve been working at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where I happened to run into Emanuel Ax in the corridor. His recital in Swasey in 2005 was my introduction to the Vail Series, and I went up to him to tell him so. He instantly broke into a big smile when I mentioned Denison and the Vail Series. When I followed that by mentioning that I had worked for Lorraine, he was delighted, and proceeded down the corridor to tell an equally delighted Yo-Yo Ma of his encounter with a friend of their friend, Lorraine.

—Xerxes Unvala ’09

There is no doubt that Jessye Norman is a presence. When she takes the stage she commands it, and when she sings, she demands attention, whether it’s for her complete control of quiet, tempered notes or the strength of her voice with powerful versions of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” or Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

Norman’s performance on Sunday afternoon in Swasey Chapel was planned to be an acoustic event, with no amplification of her work or that of pianist Mark Markham, which turned out to be a good thing, as the power on campus was out due to high winds earlier in the afternoon.

No matter. The audience sat listening to Norman sing American classics like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and “Mack the Knife” as the spring sun streamed through the chapel’s windows.

By the second half of the concert, the lights had come on, the music kept going, and the audience prepared for a couple of standing ovations. It was the last concert of the 2012-13 Vail Series, and it was quite the note to go out on, both for the season and for the 34-year career of the Series’ director, Lorraine Wales, who will retire in June.

Wales’ Vail career began in 1979, when Denison received a generous gift from Foster and Mary McGaw in memory of Jeanne Vail ’46 that would fund a program for the enhancement of the arts.  About that time, Wales mentioned to the late Denison President Bob Good that it would be wonderful if Denison could have a named music series. After a brief search, she was chosen to be director of the project and began planning for the initial performance of the Vail Series.

Wales, who is a classically trained pianist, had been a resident musician since the early ’70s in Denison’s Dance Department. She also was an accompanist for violinist Richard Marshall, the son of English DepartmentProfessor Kenneth Marshall and student of world famous artist Itzhak Perlman. That April, while preparing for his upcoming performance in Burke Hall, Marshall invited Wales to join him for a lesson with Perlman in New York.

Itzhak Perlman enjoying a meal at Wales’ Granville home in 1979

While talking to Perlman about music at Denison, Wales mentioned the newly created Vail Fund in memory of Jeanne Vail, who had died of polio, and asked ifhe would be willing to present the inaugural concert. The artist agreed, touched by the idea that he would join in celebrating the life of a young woman stricken by the same illness that had left him unable to walk.

Over the next 34 years, 120 more concerts have taken place, bringing elite musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Yuja Wang, Leontyne Price, Christopher Parkening, John Bayless, Branford Marsalis, Emanuel Ax, Maya Angelou, Pinchas Zukerman, Bobby McFerrin, the King’s Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis, and the BBC Concert Orchestra to the chapel. Many returned for additional performances over the years.

Wales is known for her personal touch with the artists—always sure to ask about the performers’ favorite foods and making sure they enjoyed them as well some Goumas chocolate while they were in Granville. Many concerts were topped off with receptions at the college or at her home, with opportunities for the visitors to chat with Denison presidents, faculty, staff and students, and invited Granville friends.

Her interns also had a front-row seat not only to observe and contribute to each performance, but to get to know the performers as well. “Lorraine encouraged the interns to think on their own, present her with ideas, and actively engage in dialogue relating to all aspects of the planning and execution of a performance,” says Ali Wilson ’08, a violin performance major while at Denison, who is now a senior assurance associate for PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Lorraine also made sure the interns had the opportunity to get to know these great musicians. These experiences were part of what made Denison such a special place.”

Wales prepares for retirement in June and many good years ahead with husband George, sons Craig and Doug, and daughter Jennifer and their families. Although she won’t be working in her office in Burton Morgan next year, her vision still will be a part of the 2013-14 season—she’s already planned the year’s performances.

Wales will be missed, and her gifts of musical performances throughout the last three decades will always be treasured.

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