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by Michael Portantiere

Barbara Song

  • Barbara Cook

    Barbara Song

    Ever since her magnificent career "comeback" as a cabaret and concert artist in the mid 1970s, the beloved Broadway veteran Barbara Cook has been singing gloriously in venues ranging from intimate clubs to grand halls, with instrumental forces ranging from piano, bass, and drums to full symphony orchestras. Within the next few weeks, her fans will have a chance to experience her artistry in two very different contexts, as she reunites with the New York Philharmonic for a one-night-only concert at Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday, May 30 and then returns to Feinstein's at the Loew's Regency June 18-20 for a reprise of her acclaimed show "Here's to Life." I recently spoke with the always charming, down-to-earth Miss Cook and posed several questions, including how the heck she can still be singing so phenomenally well in her eighties. (No, that is not a misprint.)


    BROADWAYSTARS: Barbara Cook and the New York Philharmonic, together again. What a wonderful thing.

    BARBARA COOK: Yes. It's fun to play with those guys and gals. Just about half of the program will be material that I've never performed with the Phil. The last time I sang with them was in January of 2008. Time creeps up on us!

    STARS: When you sing with symphonies, where do the orchestrations come from?

    BC: As you know, those orchestrations are quite expensive, so there are some that I've used through the years. Jonathan Tunick has done some for me, and Peter Matz did a lot. Unfortunately, he's not around anymore. What a great guy he was. So talented.

    STARS: Your voice is a natural wonder. Do you have any explanation for your amazing vocal longevity?

    BC: Well...not really. I have a technique that obviously works for me, because I've been using it for over 50 years now. The only real voice teacher I ever had, Robert Kobin, gave me that technique. The other thing is common sense; if something hurts, I don't do it, if you know what I mean. Plus, it's gotta be genes. And I have good health, thank goodness.

    STARS: Would you say that you lead an exemplary lifestyle?

    BC: Hardly! I'm afraid I don't exercise as I should, and I don't always eat as I should. Lately, I don't sleep enough. But I've never smoked, and I don't drink; I did drink a lot for a while there, but I don't anymore. My voice has certainly changed over the years. I don't sing those really high things anymore, but there's enough there so that I can more than get by.

    STARS: You still sing largely in the soprano range.

    BC: I don't think of it that way. I just sing. I try to find the right path, and I don't worry about what's what. My teacher felt that the changes that happen when a voice goes from one register to another will happen automatically if you don't concentrate on all that.

    STARS: Since you brought up the subject: Based on your recordings from the mid 1950s to the present, it sounds to me that you never really had a noticeable register break.

    BC: Well, that was one of the main things my voice teacher worked on. Vocal cords are made the same way. Talent is another thing, but we know all know how the sound is made. There's no mystery to that. But some voice teachers do all these silly kinds of things.

    STARS: You're a great supporter of younger generations of singers. You've given joint concerts with Audra McDonald, and I know she's a particular favorite of yours. Who else?

    BC: Norm Lewis. God, what a beautiful voice. Adam Pascal. Stokes, of course. Josh Groban doesn't do theater, but he has a beautiful sound. I haven't seen much musical theater lately, because I've been very busy. But every now and then I get out the ABCs and make a big list of what I want to see.

    STARS: You've famously sung "It's Better With a Band." Do you prefer to perform with a stage full of musicians like the Philharmonic, or with a much smaller combo as you will at Feinstein's? Or does it really depend on the venue, the repertoire, and so on?

    BC: Well, I love working with the Phil. And just recently I opened the season for the Boston Pops. Symphony Hall is beautiful, and the sound there is sensational. I don't really have a preference for a large orchestra over a small group, because there are plusses and minuses to both situations. The kind of sweeping sound you can get with lots of strings is so wonderful, but those concerts require more rehearsal, which we don't always have.

    STARS: As fabulous as your concert at the Metropolitan Opera House was a few years ago, I was disappointed that you didn't sing with the Met orchestra.

    BC: It's about money, isn't it, darlin'? That's what it's about!

    Published on Sunday, May 24, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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