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February 10, 2009

Ageless Barbara Cook lights up Kennedy Center

Barbara Cook"The good things hold up," Barbara Cook said last night on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. She was referring to vintage songs, the kind that seasoned this program for the Washington Performing Arts Society, but I'd bet everyone in the house was thinking about her when she made the remark. At 81, Cook doesn't just hold up well. She lifts us up in the process.

Many a singer would pay dearly to learn how to preserve the vocal quality that Cook has maintained over a career that is inching toward the six-decade mark. Other than a bit of thinning in the upper register, her tone remains remarkably pure and dead-on, her phrasing effortlessly communicative and free of affectation. She puts a song across by letting the music and lyrics go first, an approach that seems to have been lost on a whole generation of wailing, flailing would-be vocal idols.

For me, Cook is most sublime in ballads, and they were generously represented here. Among the highlights: Weill's "Lost in the Stars," paired with Sondheim's "No More," a study in subtly employed expressive power; a fervent account of another Sondheim item from Into the Woods, "No One is Alone"; and, most exquisite of all, another apt pairing, "I'm Through with Love" and "Smile," the latter shaped so touchingly that it might as well have been renamed "Tears." (The past few times I've heard Cook in concert, it was her tender account of "This Nearly Was Mine" that got to me. Last night, she did a beautiful job with it, as expected, but it didn't sound quite as affectingly personal. This time, she seemed to reserve her deepest emotional touch for "Smile.")

There was an intriguing link made between "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" (in a wonderfully dark arrangement) and a selection from Sondheim's Passion about a disturbed woman who actually does write herself a letter. Up-tempo numbers, including "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and such novelties as "Sooner or Later" from Disney's Song of the South, received spirited attenmion. And it was interesting to hear Cook charge into "Lover Come Back to Me" at more or less the same breathless clip used by the young Streisand, but without, of course, the latter's stinging cynicism. (If there's anything Cook can't do well, it's probably stinging cynicism.)  

Throughout the evening, pianist Lee Musiker, bassist Peter Donovan and drummer James Saporito provided Cook with versatile, sensitive support.

As usual, she offered an unamplified encore, and, as usual, it made me wish I could hear Cook perform an entire concert without a mike. Her voice floated easily and warmly in the hall when, with just the gentle accompaniment of Musiker, she eloquently sculpted the lines of "We'll Be Together Again." The silvery sound of her voice, and the wistful taste of that song, followed me into the parking lot and lingered all the way home to Baltimore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:03 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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