Barbara Cook’s 85th Birthday Concert at Carnegie Hall, with a relaxed Ms. Cook and Ted Rosenthal, left, and Jay Leonhart among the musicians.
Among the flock of devotees attending Barbara Cook’s 85th Birthday Concert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, I imagine everyone coming away from this love-in savoring a different favorite moment, for there were so many choices.
Here are two. The first was an a capella rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” in which the world seemed to fall out from under her on the words “Oh God,” uttered as a gasp of despair. The second, the relatively obscure early-1930s ballad “If I Love Again,” by Jack Murray and Ben Oakland, was turned into a heartbreaking confession of emotional duplicity by a woman fantasizing the presence of a departed lover while in the arms of others.
More possibilities: a slow, sultry rendition of “Lover Man,” in which the late-blooming jazz torch singer inside Ms. Cook rose to the fore, and an unamplified encore of “Imagine,” with a skeletal piano accompaniment that she infused with hope and sweetness. And there was her recently adopted signature song, “Here’s to Life,” which she sang very slowly, imparting every phrase as if it were a hard-won life lesson. To hear a singer in her 80s whose voice transcends age bearing down on the words, “As long as I’m still in the game I want to play,” was inspiring.
The program was a slightly augmented version of the cabaret show Ms. Cook brought to Feinstein’s at Loews Regency last April, in which she sang 11 new songs, none by Stephen Sondheim, whose music has preoccupied her in recent years. As Ms. Cook’s voice has lowered and darkened, its innate expressiveness has intensified, erasing the last vestiges of the ingénue she used to be. Unless you’re a fetishist for the high notes she used to toss off singing “Glitter and Be Gay,” that’s all to the good.
Ms. Cook, whose actual birthday is Oct. 25, talked movingly about her accompanists, including Wally Harper, her musical director for more three decades, who died eight years ago after steering her toward swing. The jazz pianists Lee Musiker and Ted Rosenthal, who succeeded him and continued the process, were both present.
Like Barbra Streisand in her recent concerts at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Ms. Cook has reached the point in her career where she has nothing left to prove. For most of the evening she was supremely relaxed, and amusing anecdotes poured out of her.
The final part of the night was a tribute with special guests. John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey sang a Vincent Youmans medley. Sheldon Harnick sang a cleverly rewritten version of “She Loves Me,” and Josh Groban performed a beautiful, unadorned rendition of the concert’s only Sondheim number, “Not While I’m Around.”
The choicest words came from the soprano Susan Graham, who sang “Till There Was You,” from “The Music Man” and praised Ms. Cook for her “unfailing honesty.” An early recording of Ms. Cook that she heard as a child in New Mexico, Ms. Graham recalled, was the first time she had ever heard a beautiful voice. “I wanted to be you when I was growing up,” she said. “And I still do.”
In her show Barbara Cook, whose actual birthday is on Thursday, also spoke of her accompanists, offered anecdotes and was joined by special guests. Robert Caplin for The New York Times