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.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Sasha Cooke (photo by Dario Acosta)

It's been over a year since we reviewed mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke at the Juilliard Vocal Arts Recital and a half-year since we reviewed her performance in As One at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She captivated us last night at Zankel Hall as part of the Julia Goldwurm Pure Voice Series.  Her performances are so fine that we hope we will not have to wait another 6 months to hear her again.  Of the many qualities that contribute to her success as a performer there is the likable and easy-going stage presence that leads us to feel that she is singing just for us.

There is that wonderfully textured tonal richness-- like a cup of espresso that makes one sit up and take notice.  There is that musicality by which each song is distinctive, made meaningful by phrasing, word coloring and variety of tempi and dynamics.  There is that deeply felt connection to the text, delivered without excess theatrics, that gives the impression that she is channeling the poet.

The fine program opened with Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos.  This work was a perfect choice for Ms. Cooke who negotiated the wide range of emotions without any hint of fussiness.  Rather she used her technique to serve the music without calling attention to herself.  The poor girl has been abandoned on Crete by her lover Theseus.  When she first awakes she is calling out for him with love in her voice. Only later does she realize she has been abandoned and she is consumed by anger at the betrayal.  At the conclusion she is desolate and wishes to die.  We are happy that Haydn used an Italian text.  The vowels were more than usually evocative.

Usually when we see a set of Liszt songs on a program, we expect intensity and perhaps even bombast.  But the four songs chosen by Ms. Cooke were gentle songs and we adored them.  "Wieder möcht ich dir begegnen" in a tuneful ABBA rhyming scheme expressed tenderness.  "Lasst mich ruhen" was likewise quiet with the piano of Julius Drake making clear the sound of the nightingale's songs.  Music to our ears! "Was Liebe sei" is a short song with a witty closing line perkily delivered by Ms. Cooke.  She used a generous amount of control to achieve the stillness required by "Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen" with a peaceful decrescendo at the end.

We can never get enough of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  The text, by Mahler himself, is filled with the sorrow of lost love, despite efforts to find peace in nature.  In fact, the joys of nature seem to mock the singer.  Mahler makes liberal use of folk melodies and interesting harmonies.  The melodies are often heard woven through his symphonies.  Ms. Cooke sang the cycle with great depth of feeling.

Having impressed us with her facility in Italian and German, Ms. Cooke also included on her program three tonadillas by Enrique Granados.  These charming Spanish songs were customarily sung between the acts of a zarzuela in the 18th c. But Granados composed these Tonadillas en un estilo antiguo at the turn of the 20th c. They are filled with spunky humor and passionate feeling.

It must be a great thrill for a singer to have a work composed just for her.  Carnegie Hall commissioned a work from prize-winning composer Kevin Puts and we wish we could say we enjoyed it.  We did not.  The music is interesting with strange harmonies and key progressions.  To Ms. Cooke's credit she sang off the book and with perfect diction.  But we did not find the poetry interesting enough to lend itself to musical treatment and the vocal line was not memorable.

The first time we heard Die Schöne Mullerin we walked out of the concert hall singing.  Likewise for Winterreise and the Mahler cycle we just heard.  We could not summon up a single phrase to repeat from the Puts cycle.  We are just suckers for melody!

Melody we got during the encores which were happily dedicated to Steven Blier, our favorite songmeister.  One we couldn't identify called "Ooh, la la" and a rather récherché arrangement of Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night".  And THAT's a melody!

(c) meche kroop

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