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Barbara Cook: The Young Octogenarian Singer at the Zenith of Her Career

Victor L. Schermer By

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What was especially impressive about Barbara Cook, however, was the careful way she shaped each phrase of every song, lending to the material the power required for it to succeed at both the theatrical and musical levels.
Barbara Cook, with Lee Musiker, piano; Peter Donovan, bass; James Saporito, drums
Tanglewood Music Festival
Lennox, Massachusetts
July 14, 2008
Barbara Cook, the legendary star of the Broadway theater and featured attraction on concert stages worldwide, has already celebrated her 80th birthday with a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic as well as on London's West End, at Los Angeles' Disney Concert Hall, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. This writer, while he takes his jazz very seriously, can be equally engaged by Broadway musicals—so much so that it was anything but a difficult decision to expand a Tanglewood itinerary to include Ms. Cook's performance at this stage in her remarkable career.

As it turned out, the celebrated diva performed, but did not stop at, beautiful and fresh renditions of Broadway show tunes from the repertoire of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Weill, and others: she added numerous songs from the Great American Songbook—and sang them with the precision and aplomb of a knowing, experienced jazz vocalist. This was a concert to remember. At the ripe age of 80, Cook's voice and stamina were worthy of a much younger singer, her personality captivating the full-house audience in Ozawa Hall (not to mention the multitude of those picknicking on the lawn behind the auditorium).

What was most impressive about her, however, was the careful way she shaped each phrase of every song, lending to the material the power required for it to succeed at both the theatrical and musical levels. In other words, she went beyond belting out show tunes or summoning up crowd-pleasing melodies, choosing instead to explore—sensitively and tastefully—the emotions and meanings that each song evoked. She was aided greatly to this end by the stellar accompaniment of a trio consisting of her music director and pianist, Lee Musiker, along with Peter Donovan on bass and James Saporito on drums. These are seasoned musicians who responded sensitively to every nuance of Ms. Cook's singing. While Messrs Donovan and Saporito stayed mostly in the background, Musiker virtually formed a musical partnership with Cook, showing why he's been a favorite of singers ranging from Mel Torme and Tony Bennett to Maureen McGovern and Kathleen Battle. His thorough command of the instrument became apparent with his ability to elaborate in complex ways on the tunes while complementing Ms. Cook beautifully.

As was no doubt the case with the rest of the audience, the music itself commanded the listener's complete attention, even apart from the special circumstances and noteworthy occasion. But in addition there was an undeniably powerful message in the way that Cook comported herself—seeming ageless rather than old, and humbly dedicated to the music instead of trying to impress the crowd. And rather than perform as a survivor, trying to "prove" she was still capable, she achieved the kind of intimacy with each member of the audience that only the greatest performers can achieve, reminding us all of our common humanity and love of life despite the sadness and loss that so many great American songs express. Although her vocal resources and style are decidedly different, she reached for the same high standards as a singer like Billie Holiday, who was incomparable in her ability to convey deeply-felt personal emotion with the musical accuracy and restraint that disclose universal significance.

Performances such as these can contribute to making one less tolerant of the pop music that has replaced it—the manifestations of a mass "culture" that eschews precision and nuance in favor of catering to the millions who experience music as the extremes of titillation and anesthesia. It was indeed a pleasure to hear Barbara Cook, not only because of her consummate artistry but her professionalism in refusing to give in to a temptation to imitate others or to trivialize the inner meanings that these wonderful, timeless songs can convey.


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