Why is it so difficult for some singers simply to be themselves onstage? It's fascinating how quickly we can pick up on a singer's discomfort. A poorly chosen program, a determination to stand back from the emotional content of the music, a tendency to joke around too much onstage, can all become a kind of distracting armor that prevents performers from fully showing themselves to us. Throughout her performing career, and in the many master classes she has taught around the country, Barbara Cook has advocated throwing off that armor. On October 18, when Carnegie Hall presented her in an eighty-fifth birthday concert, she demonstrated a lifetime of lessons learned. Her music director/pianists were Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, and the show was scripted by David Thompson, produced by Jeff Berger and directed by Daniel Kutner.
Cook has made many appearances at Carnegie over the years — the first being in 1961, with Leonard Bernstein. "Here I am again," she said when she padded onstage. "Blinked my eye — and eighty-five!" She then launched into a highly satisfying program, skipping some of her famous theater hits ("Vanilla Ice Cream," from She Loves Me, "They Were You," from The Fantasticks, "It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) in favor of a well-chosen collection of pop and jazz standards. In places, Cook's voice sounded drier than it has on past occasions, and now and then, from her seated position, she couldn't quite muster the support for an isolated high note, so that her vibrato widened in ways we aren't used to hearing. But for the most part she was in excellent voice, nailing stunning high notes in "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and making a heartrending lament out of "Bye Bye Blackbird." There were a few miscalculations: Dan Hicks's country-flavored "list" song, "I Don't Want Love," is better suited to a performer who uses bolder, cruder strokes, and Musiker's arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" undulated so much that the song itself got lost. But the almost-forgotten '30s ballad "If I Love Again" was pure, heartfelt magic, and "The Nearness of You" and "Makin' Whoopee" were all but flawless. At the concert's end, some surprise guest stars — John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Graham and Josh Groban — showed up to boost the birthday celebration by each doing a turn; the high point was Groban's cleanly sung performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around."
But it wasn't as much an evening about music-making or vocalizing as it was about honesty. Clearly, it took Cook many years to reach the point of exhibiting such ease onstage, so we shouldn't insult her by describing her art as "effortless." But it is a rare pleasure to listen to an artist who never forgets that her biggest job up there onstage is just letting us know who she is.