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June 17, 2012

Barbara Cook and the art of song-styling in Kennedy Center concert

It's worth being reminded, from time to time, that our musical divinities are human after all.

Barbara Cook, who made her Broadway debut six decades ago and has long enjoyed living legend status, looked a little unsteady as she made her way with a cane onto the stage at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Friday night. (She told the audience she had been barely able to walk a few weeks earlier.)

She sounded a little unsteady, too, when she launched into her opener, "Let's Fall In Love," only to stop after a couple measures because she didn't like what she was hearing (or not hearing) through the monitors.

Even after things resumed, there were occasional unsettled moments, a few pitch slips, a bit of hoarseness. But you know what? None of that, absolutely none of it, mattered in the slightest.

First of all, Cook turns 85 this fall -- yes, 85. Many singers can't carry a tune well after 70. She still sets an amazing standard not just for vocal longevity, but also for artistic consistency.

Cook remains extremely important, even crucial, to our understanding of how to communicate through song. Any opportunity to be in her presence is to be treasured. It's that simple.

For about 80 minutes, the artist reaffirmed her stature (and her great sense of humor). Backed with sensitivity and stylish flair by pianist Ted Rosenthal and a trio of other first-rate players, Cook moved through a program rich in ...

standards, some of them new to her repertoire.

A couple of ballad pairings yielded disarming interpretations -- "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" with "It Had To Be You"; "The House of the Rising Sun" with "Bye Bye Blackbird" (these last two, Cook explained, are linked by having to do with houses of ill repute).

Even good old "Makin' Whoopee" seemed to get a whole new life from the telling way Cook articulated words and shaped phrases. Several items from the vintage Streisand songbook, among them "If I Love Again," "The Nearness of You" and "Lover Man," also turned up on the list, all delivered with considerable eloquence.

For her unamplified encore, Cook delivered John Lennon's "Imagine" with an affecting tenderness, casting quite a spell over an audience reluctant to let her go.

Earlier in the evening, Cook told the crowd, "I'm so glad I can still do this." We're all glad, too. And very, very grateful.

Cook gives a master class Monday evening at the Kennedy Center.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:34 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


So jealous! I wish I could have gone...are you coming to hear her at the Meyerhoff on November 3d?

Wouldn't miss it. And it's about time we had the pleasure of her company in Baltimore. (Have not seen this date appear on her Web site, though.) TIM

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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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