To celebrate her 85th birthday, Barbara Cook gave a singing lesson in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium on October 18 (a week before her actual birthday, which is the 25th). That hadn’t exactly been the great Broadway singer’s intention—she thought she was simply giving a concert—but Cook, in her maturity, has become such a quintessence of what singing at its best can be that every performance she gives is a role model and an instructive example to the young.
And the young, her willing pupils, turned up there, in the guise of the “surprise” celebrity guests, from all walks of musical life, who gathered onstage, after Cook had finished her own substantial set, to pay vocal homage to the birthday girl. They made up a distinguished lot: from the jazz-and-cabaret world, the marital duo of guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli and singer Jessica Molaskey; art-song recitalist and Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; pop tenor Josh Groban; and, from Cook’s own generation, the beloved Broadway lyricist (and occasional composer) Sheldon Harnick.
And their sung tributes, though all beautiful, demonstrated that most of them could still learn something from Cook. Graham’s gorgeous, creamy-smooth “Till There Was You,” with its slightly arch vowels, kept us at an emotional distance. Groban’s unfussy, sturdy-voiced “Not While I’m Around” lacked exactly the spun-thread continuity of phrase that Graham had provided. Molaskey and Pizzarelli, jazzing two Vincent Youmans songs contrapuntally, seemed altogether too self-consciously showy. Only Harnick, performing an affectionate tribute to Cook, written to the tune of the title song from She Loves Me (the Bock-Harnick musical in which she starred in 1964), sang out with ringing clarity and loving directness, infusing every syllable of his tricky lyrics with pure feeling.
Which is exactly the quality Cook’s singing now embodies. She had announced at the outset that this was going to be a swingier and more jazz-oriented occasion than some of her earlier concert forays, and she did sing a few jazz standards (“Lover Man,” “When Sunny Gets Blue”) and employed some jazz tactics. She bent a few notes, tossed in an occasional extra riff, sang one or two phrases a third above the melody line, and even scatted, sort of, a second chorus of “I Got Rhythm.” But this was all decorative fun, a no-nonsense lady’s way of warding off the pretensions of dowager status. Cook needn’t worry: Even at 85, she has too much spunk, and too much delight in her musical life, ever to become something as drearily grand as a dowager.
Miraculously, she has those qualities along with a voice that, even in the frailer state and narrower range of old age, might be the envy of singers 40 years her junior. She slid through a dark, unaccompanied “House of the Rising Sun” with barely a waver in pitch; she caught, with unerring comic sense, the scraps of dialogue in the second chorus of “Makin’ Whoopee.” Having finally surrendered herself, after years of reluctance, to the charms of Cole Porter, she wove the long, yearning phrases of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with the sturdiness of steel cable, if you can imagine steel cable being tender and heartfelt.
To close her set, she stood up—having been obliged by her back problems to stay seated during most of her concert—and sang, unplugged, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with the total simplicity that a great German singer of an earlier era might have applied to a Schubert lied. Unamplified, the voice is small for the hall, but only in the way a perfect diamond is small: Its luster, purity, and rarity were apparent to everyone. Ms. Cook, a very happy birthday to you. And thanks for giving us all such a wonderful present.