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November 7, 2012

Why I'm in love with Barbara Cook

Don't tell my partner, but I'm wildly in love with Barbara Cook.

So much so, in fact, that I felt if it would be wiser to wait a little while before writing about the singer's concert Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. That way I wouldn't just gush all over the place. No such luck. Stand by for gushing.

Miss Cook, who just turned 85, was in marvelous, heartwarming form in this long overdue return to Baltimore. She may not have looked spry as she walked onstage, with the aid of a cane. And she sat for the whole concert, due to back problems.

But that was as far as the age thing went. And, really, the sitting only made the concert seem more intimate, as if we had all been invited to Miss Cook's Upper West Side apartment for a little music.

Of course the soprano's voice has changed over time, but there remains an unwavering gleam in the timbre. And, as I have been reminded each time I have heard her live, the essence beneath that tonal surface is the same, revealing a soul that continues to zero in effortlessly and compellingly on the contour of a melody, the truth of a lyric.

The program -- backed by the suave and subtle combo of Ted Rosenthal (piano), Lawrence Feldman (woodwinds), Baltimore native Jay Leonhart (bass), Warren Odze (percussion) -- was drawn largely from Miss Cook's latest album, "Lover Man."

That release makes a worthy addition to her discography, but ...

the interpretations she delivered on Saturday went considerably beyond the recorded tracks. She has been living with these songs for several months since making the album, and they seem to be revealing new things to her each time she performs them.

Intermingled with her saucy, lightly Georgia-accented commentary (she dropped the f-bomb at one point and took infectious delight in reading a list of absurd country song titles), Miss Cook went through the repertoire with evident glee.

The swinging tunes swung gently, among them "Makin' Whoopie," which seemed a little funnier and naughtier than ever, thanks to the color and rhythmic playfulness in the singer's phrasing.

The ballads, each one sculpted with the incisiveness of a Callas, included an exquisite "If I Love Again" and "The Nearness of You," not to mention an intriguing fusion of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye Bye Blackbird."

One of the highest of the highlights was "Lover Man," a song most associated with Billie Holiday (I associate it more with the other Barbra in my life, the one with the missing 'a,' but that's just me).

What Miss Cook did with the phrase "strange as it may seem" was stunning. She timed it so tellingly, making you wait for it a few extra beats. Then she infused those five words with palpable hope and fear, the bittersweet resignation of someone all too used to dreaming of a love ever out of reach.

Miss Cook wiped away a few tears in that song and a couple of others (when she teared up, I teared up) -- "Here's to Life," which she made remarkably personal and encompassing; and her un-amplified encore, "Imagine."

Her account of that John Lennon song, so natural and poetic, had a mesmerizing effect on the hall, one more indelible moment in a concert that reconfirmed the national treasure status of Barbara Cook -- and one more reason why I'm so unabashedly in love with, and in awe of, this disarming artist.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

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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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