We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Pei-Yao Wang and Sasha Cooke
At the start of the recital, Ms. Cooke expressed appreciation to the audience for braving the slushy streets to attend; at the end of the recital, the audience expressed their appreciation for this plucky performer who went on with the Alice Tully Vocal Arts Recital in spite of a cold.  Brian Zeger himself had prepared us in a most charming story (about singers with colds) for an impaired performance but no apology was necessary and no forbearance required.  Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke delivered a perfect performance; we could hear the cold in her voice when she spoke about her songs but not when she sang.

And did she ever sing!  Ms. Cooke (who finished her Master's Degree at Juilliard in 2006 and went on to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program) has a distinctive sound that is hers and hers alone; one is not driven to compare her to anyone else.  There is a depth and texture to the sound that reminded us of rich dark espresso lightened with cream.  She can spin out a vocal line like nobody's business and is seamless throughout the register.  And there is a satisfying amplitude to the sound.

Moreover she has a poised and polished presence onstage, chatting comfortably with the audience; it makes one feel that the girl next store has amazingly become a superstar.  Her collaborative pianist Pei-Yao Wang was chosen as carefully as the program.  Ms. Wang has the softest hands and the most delicate touch heard in a long while and was always totally supportive of Ms. Cooke and the music simultaneously.

Selections from Hugo Wolf's Mörike-Lieder opened the program; all were beautifully sung but we especially enjoyed the jauntier songs "Fussreise" and "Der Tambour", the charming tale of a young soldier daydreaming about his mother and some good food.  Ms. Wang shone in "Um Mitternacht" establishing the requisite peaceful mood.

We were warned by Ms. Cooke not to try to make sense of Max Jacob's surreal poetry set by Francis Poulenc.  What impressed us was how the music amplified the rhythm of the phrases and the sound of the words.

Two songs by Henri Duparc followed--mysterious, evocative and sensual.  "L'invitation au voyage" and "La vie antérieure" were sung in French as impeccable as her German.

The second half of the program comprised songs in English; regular readers will recall that English is our least favorite language for singing.  That being said, Ms. Cooke made some outstanding choices and sang them so well that we recognized  many possibilities for pleasure.  As she told the audience, all the songs in the second half were composed at the midpoint of the 20th c.  George Crumb wrote some excellent songs for the woman he would later marry when he was but 17 years old.  In "Night" (text by Robert Southey) the piano established a lovely quiet mood and the two artists created quite a bit of variety in the dynamics.  In "Let it be Forgotten" (text by Sara Teasdale) Ms. Cooke gave us a messa di voce of incomparable delicacy.

In Benjamin Britten's A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 there is a wide variety of moods, not all soothing.  There was "A Cradle Song" with text by William Blake in which the interplay of piano and voice was arresting.  "The Highland Balou" was sung in a Scottish brogue with a great deal of vivacity.  The delicate "Nurse's Song" was begun a capella with the piano entering and supporting the mood. 

The program closed with selections from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs--the familiar "Simple Gifts", "The Little Horses" with its wildly varying tempi, the peaceful "At the River" and the frisky "Ching-a-Ring chaw".

There is no way the enthusiastic audience would let Ms. Cooke go without a couple encores.  Enrique Granados' "El Mirar de la Maja" demonstrated Ms. Cooke's facility with Spanish passion and William Bolcom's "Black Max" is just a marvelous portrait of a character, his time and his place.

This recital marked the 17th annual Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital given to promote "exceptionally talented Juilliard singers".  We could not agree more with "exceptionally talented".  We expect no less coming out of Juilliard.

© meche kroop

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