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Free to Be

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

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. spacer 

Up Close and Personal

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, New York City) Permanent link

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb took the modest-sized stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the West Village on Friday, October 26, as the crowd settled in and started placing their drink orders. Referring to the program as "our downtown adventure," he added, to much audience laughter, "Our presence here tonight is not the result of our getting off at the wrong subway station."

While individual Met artists such as Danielle de Niese and Joseph Calleja have been booking LPR for one-off events, Friday night's concert reflected the Met's maiden voyage to the Bleecker Street cabaret bar. The evening's program — presented first at 6:30 PM, then repeated at 9 PM — was curated by composer Thomas Adès, whose opera The Tempest is currently playing at the Met, and who put together an hour's worth of Tempest-related material spanning three centuries of music. (A second event in the Met–LPR collaboration, this time an evening with composer Nico Muhly, is slated for May 14.)

As he explained his selections at the top of the program, Adès displayed a quiet magnetism. Right from the start, the intimate setting seemed to inspire a different kind of interaction between the artists and their audience: it felt warm, informal and personal. In a nice little bit of serendipity, Adès's program included five different settings by five different composers of Ariel's timeless verse "Full fathom five," from Act I of Shakespeare's play. 

Countertenor Iestyn Davies sang two of them, first Purcell's, in Adès's arrangement, and later in the program, Michael Tippett's. (Adès played piano all evening.) The piano accompaniment for the Purcell still possessed a Baroque stateliness, but Adès stripped away the formality of the original and forged a more direct emotional connection — at least by modern standards — to the words. Davies's sprite-like timbre was a lovely fit, but for Tippett's gorgeous, unabashedly tonal, just-sentimental-enough setting from 1962, I wanted something more soulful and tender from the vocalist. 

Kate Lindsey also received a pair of "Full fathom five" assignments. First, she braved Stravinsky's serialist setting from 1953, sitting alongside the flutist, clarinetist and violist as if she were just one more instrument in the quartet. Her delivery of Ives's "A Sea Dirge" was so devastated (and devastating), embodying the narrative voice so completely, that Adès could not suppress a smile from his seat at the piano. (Afterwards, my companion leaned over to me and said, "She's the Amanda Peet of opera. I'm completely obsessed with her.") 

Laure Meloy, who is covering the role of Ariel in The Tempest at the Met — which I saw the following night; my favorite evening at the opera so far this season — sang the version from Adès's opera. (The lyric was reworked as "Five fathoms deeps" by librettist Meredith Oakes, who couldn't help but keep most of Shakespeare's unforgettable language.) She delivered the high siren calls with much success though not without what seemed like fear. In such a small venue, with such a dry, unflattering acoustic, the mercilessness of Adès's sky-high vocal writing was all too apparent. 

But when you have a singer like Simon Keenlyside, there's no need to quibble about acoustics. His voice could probably reverberate in a vacuum. His ninety seconds onstage, singing Prospero's "Our revels are ended" from Adès's opera, were magnificent in every way. He somehow scaled his performance to the venue but didn't at all. He was big and impressive but connected to every person in the room, holding his hands up just so, keeping you in his grasp. All I can say is, to hear an artist of Keenlyside's stature booming from the stage not twenty feet away like some kind of secular, seductive operatic god is well worth the two-drink minimum. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Live and Well

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

Blog Amos Poisson Rouge lg 1012
Tori Amos at (Le) Poisson Rouge
Photo by Ebru Yildiz for NPR

Tori Amos — pop siren and dazzling keyboard technician — gave a special, one-night-only concert on Friday at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge. Over the past few years, classical musicians in search of the below-Fourteenth Street crowd have gravitated to this cabaret venue on Bleecker Street, so it makes sense that Amos, who has partnered with the Deutsche Grammophon label, would embrace the quirky venue for a chamber concert with string octet. Tickets were free and available exclusively through a lottery on LPR’s website, though I noted at least one lucky, ticket-less fan who waited out the line, which wrapped around the block, and gained standing-room admission.

Amos was promoting her latest album Gold Dust, a collection of greatest hits in newly orchestrated renditions, marking the twentieth anniversary of her breakout success with Little Earthquakes. For fans who grouse that the updating on Gold Dust is too subtle, that the new versions sound suspiciously similar to the old versions, this concert was a revelation. 

In the live show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, Amos’s interaction with the string players felt substantial and collaborative. The crescendos in “Cloud On My Tongue” were excitingly synchronized, and she sprinkled extra measures of music throughout the song, exposing the seams between verse/chorus, giving the piece a sense of expansiveness and showing off the instrumentalists. Even a fan-favorite like “Hey Jupiter” got the revisionist treatment: Amos deconstructed the song and put it back together, turning a teary, haunting ballad into an up-tempo cabaret number, with plucked strings and percussive keyboard effects. It sounded like a cross between Gotye and Kurt Weill. Going solo for some selections, Amos proved that she could turn a beautiful composition that had seemed too earthbound on record into a buoyant success — most notably “Taxi Ride,” her tribute to makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who died in 2002. 

Of course, Amos’s prowess in a live setting is well documented. Rolling Stone acknowledged her undeniable onstage allure in 2003, placing her at No. 5 in its list of the “20 Greatest Live Bands” and branding her “a one-woman wrecking crew.” With the industry-wide decline of CD sales, Amos is one artist who has benefited from the increased importance of concerts and tours in bolstering a recording artist’s profile. Luckily, NPR Music sponsored and broadcast the LPR concert, and it is now available in streaming fashion in their online archivesspacer 


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