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Heartbreak and Healing,
Sometimes Both at Once

By Stephen Holden
November 21, 2007
Barbara Cook and James Taylor
From the moment Barbara Cook planted herself on stage at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday evening and sang “Lucky to Be Me,” a blissfully confident declaration of well-being from On the Town, it was obvious that Ms. Cook, who celebrated her 80th birthday on Oct. 25, meant every word. “I could laugh out loud” became a whoop of joy. The concert found this Broadway lyric soprano not only alive and kicking but in great voice and the best physical shape (trimmer, walking without support and breathing easily) than I’ve seen her in many years.

Monday’s sold-out concert, which was repeated yesterday and also sold out (a third date has been added for Jan. 8), was a rare New York engagement in which she was accompanied by a full orchestra (the New York Philharmonic, no less), conducted by her sometime musical director Lee Musiker. A brilliant pianist who enriches show tunes with jazz chords and a swinging pulse, he is the most inventive of her accompanists, even including her longtime musical partner, Wally Harper, who died three years ago. An accelerated, scampering version of “Lover, Come Back to Me,” in midshow propelled her to a comfortable perch on the brink of jazz.

The arc of Monday’s concert, which ran 90 minutes without intermission, suggested a musical and spiritual journey from faith and innocence through a dark night of the soul that is ultimately rejected with a vigorous assertion of optimism. To hear Ms. Cook sing “A Wonderful Guy” and “Give Me the Simple Life” back to back in the first third of the concert was to hear a performer spreading the gospel of simplicity, self-reliance and truth.

These two songs reminded you that there was a time in American culture when it was O.K. to be “as corny as Kansas in August” and to yearn for the bucolic. (“Sounds corny and seedy/But yes indeedy/Give me the simple life.”) As she delivered these songs without frills, it became clearer than ever that the essence of her art lies in an utter lack of artifice. There is just the voice singing the songs, and the woman feeling her feelings, with no attitude to impede communication. Even at its sunniest, her good will never appears glib. She knows who she is and speaks human to human, with an astonishing lack of narcissism.

Around the halfway point the descent began with an inspired pairing of “I’m Through With Love” and “Smile” outfitted by Mr. Musiker with dark, churning new orchestrations. “Smile” soared beyond its customary get-well card sentiments from the moment she sighed the title, as though putting on a brave face required almost more effort than she could summon. The internal battle ended in a stalemate rather than a rainbow.

The depth of despair arrived with another inspired pairing, orchestrated by Mr. Musiker, in which Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Lost in the Stars” gave way to Stephen Sondheim’s “No More” from Into the Woods Both songs address confusion and loss of faith, and you could even read political content into some of the phrases from “No More,” a helpless plea in the midst of chaos for an end to strife.

Then abruptly the ascent began with a punchy, down-home rendition of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” that was one step away from outright gospel. Again Ms. Cook peered deep into the song and found more than a clever, sprightly ad for positive thinking. Punching out Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, she took the song to emotional boot camp.

That may be a place you have to visit before arriving at the plateau where Ms. Cook stood on Monday: a transcendent American voice sharing the wisdom she has gained in 80 well-lived years with a tenderness and honesty that could break your heart and mend it all at once.