Vocalists' splendor enriches songs

Music Column

March 20, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

The voice of Barbara Cook has a quality so honest and beautifully pure that it can take your breath away. Or, as I don't mind admitting, can trigger an immediate response in the lacrimal glands. That the treasurable Cook retains such a powerful artistry at 79 just adds to her aura and allure.

In a program presented Saturday afternoon by the Washington Performing Arts Society to a large, understandably adoring crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Cook shared the stage with a remarkable talent from a younger generation, Audra McDonald. Last September, the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center offered a similar double-headliner that found opera great Marilyn Horne on the bill with Cook.

Both intermissionless programs followed a format of having each singer stay onstage while the other sang; both included the same few duets (and some of the same shtick). But where the Cook/Horne collaboration encountered rough edges in both timing and vocalism, the Cook/McDonald show flowed smoothly and hit many a peak.

Cook was in fabulous voice. If I had to choose one example, it would be "This Nearly Was Mine." I've heard her sing this South Pacific gem live three times in the past couple of years, each occasion making me a little misty-eyed, but this one really got to me. It's hard to explain how just by singing the notes essentially as written and without the slightest emotional exaggeration, Cook can turn this song into such a haunting, devastating experience.

Many a budding pop singer, weaned on the melismatic madness mistaken for inspired phrasing on American Idol, would do well to study Cook's artistry. (Classical vocalists can also learn a thing or two from this authentic Broadway legend.)

Other highpoints on the Cook side of the ledger included an affecting "Long Before I Knew You" from Bells are Ringing and stirring excerpts from Into the Woods.

The bright-voiced McDonald, who can get vividly behind a lyric, was particularly effective in Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By." And she lit up the place with a bravura account of the late Betty Hutton's rapid-patter showstopper, "Can't Stop Talkin' About Him."

There were times when McDonald seemed to be trying too hard ("Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" pretty much lost its charm under her aggressive styling) and times when her diction turned mushy. But the soprano is the real thing, a Broadway singer who combines vibrant musicality, class and a down-to-earth manner -- characteristics that, needless to say, have long defined Cook.

The two artists joined vocal cords most charmingly for a romp through "Blue Skies" and the comic "What's So Wonderful?"

Throughout the concert, the singers enjoyed elegant, colorful support from pianists Lee Musiker and Ted Sperling, bassist Peter Donovan (McDonald's husband) and drummer David Ratajczak.

Cook's endearing custom during encore time is to sing one unamplified song. She chose a beauty Saturday, and every time she caressed the title line, "We'll Be Together Again," I kept thinking: "Not soon enough."

A double `Farewell'

The D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble is all about new things, and new light on old things. Friday night at the Clarice Smith Center, those two motivations came together for a fascinating exploration of Der Abschied (The Farewell), the last movement from The Song of the Earth, Gustav Mahler's indelible reflection on mortality and the comforting continuity of nature.

The seamlessly organized program, enhanced by gentle lighting onstage, imaginatively worked its way to that haunting movement. First came traditional Chinese music, eloquently played on the pipa (by Min Xiao-fen) and erhu (by Wang Guowei). Then, a mesmerizing recitation by Shi Hong Aldin of some of the poems that inspired Mahler.

Next, the premiere of The Farewell by Chinese-born composer Zhou Long, who took as his inspiration those same poems (without setting them to music).

The new work starts with the instrumentation that Arnold Schoenberg used in his chamber-sized arrangement of Mahler's Farewell, the 13-player arrangement used by the Post-Classical Ensemble. Zhou Long adds pipa and erhu to that grouping for a score that reverberates with the colors of Chinese folk music, heard through an increasingly diffuse harmonic prism.

The piece, given an effective performance led by Angel Gil-Ordonez, segued easily into Mahler's song of parting. Mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler shaped her lines sensitively, if not always with enough tonal ripeness. Despite a few cloudy details, Gil-Oredonez and the ensemble caught the essence of this soul-touching music.


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