Saturday, October 04, 2003

Barbara Cook sang a highly acclaimed performance of her "Mostly
Sondheim" program at Symphony Hall not so very long ago in
superb voice. She returned to the Hall last night in company with
Marilyn Horne for a tumultuously received program "from the
American Songbook." Cook admits to 74 in her program bio
and Horne to turning 70 this coming January.

The first half of the evening was not an unalloyed delight even with
its many highlights. Cook sounded reduced in tone, air leaking
audibly around all the notes in her middle and wisp of a top. The
bell-like purity of voice for which she is famed was in short supply,
however, the complete mastery of phrasing and word painting never
failed. She shaped "It might as well be spring," "I'm beginning to
see the light," and "This nearly was mine" from SOUTH PACIFIC
gorgeously. Marilyn had sung the first set after a raucous playing
of the overture to GYPSY. The great mezzo still has that rock
solid pipe organ of a chest voice but a rusty patch in the middle
caused some trouble as she ascended into the upper middle and
lightly touched top. She sang a nice, not completely settled "In
the still of the night" to open, did even better with a jaunty
"Bewitched, bothered and bewildered" that had an interesting
and thoroughly appropriate hint of ruefulness, sounded unsettled
again in "Over the rainbow" but brought her set to a rousing
close with "Ding Dong! The witch is dead." Pulling out all the
stops, including a loopy cadenza poking fun at her old coloratura
specialty, she gave the first real hint of what this evening could be.
The ladies ended the first part with Joe Raposo's "Sing" very
nicely indeed.

It didn't take long to become thoroughly sick of the souped
up, overloud orchestral accompaniment. Forty two musicians
were involved, many of them including the acoustic guitar, the
piano and even the marimba rendered completely inaudible by the
three French Horns, three Trumpets (placed right against the back
wall of the stage and braying unbearably all night), three trombones
and four Saxophones, let alone the drums. One wanted so much to
focus on Horne and Cook but got showy saxophone glissandos
and trombone blasts instead. Microphones or no microphones in
the stars' hands, it was all just too loud.

But part two started well and got progressively better. The saxophones
were gone and a couple of numbers were accompanied only by piano
with Wally Harper proving to be a far more subtle and supportive
accompanist on it then he was with the orchestra. Best of all, the
ladies were loosened up and warmed up. Barbara Cook led
off this half with a big and confident rendering of "On a clear day you
can see forever." The top and middle were beginning to emerge from
the fog. Turning to Sondheim, she did a lovely job with "You could
drive a person crazy" from COMPANY and then combined "He was
too good to me" by Rodgers and Hart and "Losing my mind" from
FOLLIES into a mini psychodrama of bitterness, pain and loss. Voice
was pouring from her at this point in the evening and the ovation was

Marilyn Horne then began her second set with a powerful rendition of
"Georgia on my mind" followed by a delicate "Beauty and the beast"
and then let loose to turn "Bridge over troubled water" into a joyous
contralto anthem. All parts of the voice were working just fine by
this time. Cook joined her for a lively, swingy "Blue skies."
Horne took the first encore, "Look for the silver lining." Cook then
followed with "No tears, no fears," her trademark encore without a
microphone during which her voice sounded at its best of the evening.
Then the two singers ended the night with a comic duet that may
or may not be called "That's wonderful!" A) the line keeps repeating
so that is what I took away with me and,B) it accurately describes
both of them, their obvious love of what they do and enjoyment at
doing it with each other. For the fashion conscious, it was an
evening about caftans, drapy evening coats and lots and lots of
sequins. Both women, Horne in particular, alternated numbers with
relaxed, sometimes earthy and always funny stories about their lives,
the songs--and each other.

JUST BETWEEN FRIENDS: Selections from the American Songbook"
is the title of the program and, despite my misgivings about some of it,
do not hesitate to get tickets if it comes to a hall near you and you're
a fan of one, the other or both of these remarkable singers. But
if ONLY Wally Harper could be persuaded to drop half of the orchestra,
weeding out the heavy brass in particular, these great ladies would
have the kind of setting they deserve instead of a competitor they
have to withstand.

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