Gilbert Kaplan: Welcome to our March show where my guest is cabaret singer extraordinaire, Barbara Cook.
Kaplan: She made her debut on Broadway more than 50 years ago and has been wowing audiences ever since. The New York Times calls her “ageless and amazing” and for London’s Financial Times, she is nothing less than “the greatest singer in the world.” She just celebrated her 80th birthday with concerts in London, Los Angeles and most recently with the New York Philharmonic – all sell-outs. And on Tuesday, she’ll return for a six-week stint at Café Carlyle in New York – her 27th appearance there. But long before Broadway and the clubs, it was the magic of classical music that first embraced her. Barbara Cook, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
Barbara Cook: Thank you very much.
Kaplan: Now, I thought we ought to start when you first discovered that you loved classical music because while the world knows you as one of the foremost singers of the musical theater, I don’t think it’s quite as well understood that classical music was really the first. I read somewhere an actual description of you as a teenager, maybe at age thirteen, you’d leave the downstairs, and you’d go up to your bedroom, light candles, lie on the floor, wind up a victrola and listen to classical music.
Cook: That’s exactly right. I was around that age, I suppose. Nobody in my family particularly was musical, and we played the radio a lot and all the kinds of popular music was on the radio. But I didn’t know anybody who liked classical music, so I’m sure, my love of classical music started when I saw films, when I saw people sing, and José Iturbi playing the piano and all that kind of thing. And Stokowski conducting, you know all those films about Carnegie Hall, all of those things, and I’m positive that’s where my love of classical music began.
Kaplan: But, what was this lying on the floor with candles? Did you always –
Cook: I was a teenager. I must have been a very moony, dreamy teenager. And we didn’t have an upstairs, we had an apartment, and I would go into the bedroom, and it’s true – I would lie on the floor, and I had a little victrola, and candles, and I would play music, hours on end.
Kaplan: Do you remember what some of the first pieces you listened to were?
Cook: I do indeed. The Grieg Piano Concerto in particular. That was the first piece of classical music that I owned. I didn’t have a lot of money. Oh, God, it was a great day when my father gave me a record player, and I can’t remember now how I got this Grieg Piano Concerto, Eugène Goossens was the pianist, and I was mad about it, just mad about it.
Kaplan: Now you mentioned earlier that you learned about music or heard music on the radio. Did you listen to the Met opera broadcasts at all?
Cook: Absolutely, very early on. I must have been, oh, nine, ten years old, and all the kids in the neighborhood knew that on Saturday afternoons I would be playing hide and seek or whatever we were playing, and then I’d have my grandmother call me, so that I didn’t miss anything. I’d go inside just by myself and listen to the opera, when I was just a child.
Kaplan: All right, well, we want to discuss later how you migrated from that over to musical theater, popular music. But let’s now turn to your classical music selections, and I see the first one you have today is Rachmaninoff.
Cook: Well, this – it’s not just Rachmaninoff. It’s not just – I should say the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s not just that, it’s this particular performance. You know, whenever people ask me about my favorite recordings, this is the very first one that I always mention because I think it may be, for me – well it’s certainly, easily one of the best live recordings, I think, ever done. It’s the Rachmaninoff with Horowitz playing with an orchestra for the first time in a long time, with the New York Philharmonic, and Eugene Ormandy conducting. And I will never forget the first time I heard that recording. I was just thunderstruck. I had never seen Horowitz, and I knew the piano concerto, but not as well as I do now, of course, because I’ve listened to this so many times, and I’ve given this recording to so many people. One of the things that strikes me about it is I have heard that whenever Horowitz had a big concert coming up, he would listen, the evening before, to some of his favorite classical singers because he wanted the piano to sing. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what this concerto does in this first movement – it sings, the piano sings.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Vladimir Horowitz with the New York Philharmonic led by Eugene Ormandy, recorded live at Carnegie Hall. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” singer extraordinaire, Barbara Cook, who will open at Café Carlyle in New York this Tuesday. Now, in spite of your acclaim, when you’ve been asked in interviews about comparisons between what you do and opera, it struck me that you have a certain reverence for people who sing opera. Is that because you find it more challenging?
Cook: Well, I think technically it is more difficult and some people find what I do difficult. It’s easy for me, because it’s something I’ve done from the first time I began to sing. And that is to sing, to communicate through song, and to have the ability to be present emotionally. Some people find that very frightening and very difficult. There are a lot of people in musical theater, for instance, who are afraid of doing a cabaret act or a concert performance when they are singing on their own, when they’re signing their name to the contract, in effect they are saying: “I chose this song and I chose this way to do it”, you know, rather than, in a sense, being able to hide in a show because, you know, you don’t have to necessarily think that’s the greatest song in the world, it’s a song that you’ve been given to do because it’s in the show.
Kaplan: But I would just make, this is a personal observation, when it comes to the talent of opera singers versus musical theater: I think few things can sound worse, frankly, than hearing opera singers sing musical theater, it sounds sometimes terribly stilted, exaggerated, completely out of character -
Cook: Honey, sometimes the worse thing you can hear is the classical opera singer singing opera! Let’s face it!
Kaplan: But I’m talking about people who sing opera well, who when they sing popular music, it just sounds completely out of character and it doesn’t work.
Cook: Well, most of the time I think it does. There’s a difference in style, and I think, well, I suffered from this myself when I started doing cabaret after having done so much theater, and that is, very, very often with popular music, less is more. And for me, when I first started doing this with Wally Harper, gosh, thirty-four years ago, thirty-five – whatever it is now, I over sang because I had this whole theater sensibility in my mind, so that if I didn’t really sing out, I thought I was cheating, cheating the public, if you know what I mean, and not doing my best. And slowly, slowly, slowly, I had to learn that you don’t need to sing that much.
Kaplan: Now, when you are listening to opera singers, do you ever think to yourself, “That’s a voice which, if I was an opera singer, I might be doing those kind of roles”? What would be your roles in opera, given the voice you have?
Cook: Well, you know, when I did Candide, there were a lot of people who said, “Oh, you should do opera,” and so forth. I think the roles that I would have done, the light soprano roles are not ones that would have interested me. I’m sure I would have wanted to do the big, dramatic ones.
Cook: Yes, if I couldn’t do Tosca, I didn’t want to play - that’s not the only reason I’m not an opera singer, believe me, who knows if I could have done it! But it would have been the very light soprano roles.
Kaplan: All right, well now we’re going to jump away from singing, which is interesting to me, because we’re coming back to your list of music and there is no singing on your list today, you being a singer, I thought you might’ve picked something.
Cook: That sort of surprised me, too, when I made the list. Afterwards, I thought, “I didn’t choose a singer”.
Kaplan: I actually have one singer, I’ll tell you about in a few minutes. But, let’s come to your next piece, which is a violin piece, Prokofiev, and tell us what the background is or your thinking on that.
Cook: Well, when I was quite young, and during World War II, and even before, even before the USO was formed, I was working with a line of girls. I say a line, because we did dance numbers together, and then each of us would do a little specialty thing. Of course I would sing. We were at the army camps in and around Atlanta, and I met a young man who was a violinist. His name was Amerigo Marino. He became a conductor, and he gave me a recording. I don’t remember who was playing. He gave me a recording of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1, and I remember listening to it, and I thought, well, this is crazy, this music! I didn’t – it was so dissonant to my ear. I just didn’t get it at all. And I set it aside. And I didn’t play it again for maybe five or six years, and I came across it, and I played it again. And I guess I had gotten more musically educated by then, because when I heard it then, I thought, “Why didn’t I love this before?” And I just fell in love with those beautiful melodies. And then most recently, I heard Joshua Bell do this recording as part of a Mostly Mozart concert, and I was there with three friends, and we all said that we would never forget that concert. We would never forget that sound.
Kaplan: The second movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, performed by Joshua Bell and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra with Charles Dutoit on the podium. Music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, singer Barbara Cook. When we return I’ll ask Barbara Cook what she had in mind when she once told a group of students that they need to strip before they go on stage.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad about Music” singer Barbara Cook. Now, earlier in this show you were talking about how much more personal cabaret singing is than performing in the opera or on Broadway. I understand you once told a group of students that what they really need to do, was sort of to strip. That is, to take off their emotional clothing when they go on stage.
Cook: But you see, that’s where safety lies. And it’s hard to understand that, this very thing that makes you feel so vulnerable and so defenseless. If you have the ability to let us in, to really set that aside, and to stop worrying about “Oh, I ought to sound like this person, or I ought to sing like that person.” Let that go, and try to let us in on the essence of who you are. You know, I pour my life’s blood into a song. I pour every hurt, every wonderful thing. My life is in these songs when I sing, and to me that’s the way to go. You see, the thing is, you’re safe then, because when you do that, when you do that in an authentic way, you touch people.
Kaplan: Well, let’s hear how it all came out, because when you accepted my invitation, I told you to bring some classical music, but I also wanted you to pick one song of yours, so we could heard some of you today, also, so what did you bring?
Cook: Well, I have a recording called “Live From London”. It was done in 1994, so that’s a while ago, isn’t it? And I think on there is some of the best singing that I have recorded. There’s a particular song by Amanda McBroom called “Ship In A Bottle,” that I think is a beautiful song. I think I sing it well, and very often when people say to me, “they’re not writing good songs anymore”, I talk about Amanda and John Bucchino and a few other people who are writing really, really beautiful songs today.
Kaplan: Amanda McBroom’s “Ship in a Bottle” sung by the remarkable theater and cabaret singer, Barbara Cook, my guest today on “Mad About Music.” Speaking of cabaret singing, Barbara Cook will open at Café Carlyle in New York on Tuesday. It will mark her 27th appearance at the Café. You know, you keep stressing the need to reveal one’s true emotions when singing, which makes me suspect that The New York Times had it right when they said about you, that if you had a business card, it would read “dramatic theater singer, specialty: heartbreak.”
Cook: I don’t remember that.
Kaplan: And I was thinking about something else that was in that article, because you were dealing with the issue of crying, not the audience, they should cry, but even sometimes you said, today you’re open to letting the music get to you to the extent that you might be in tears yourself. Now, with Hillary Clinton crying, crying is in the news today. So, talk about that. There was a time when you felt, if you cried, you would either lose the song or it’s not appropriate, and now you say you’re willing to take it on.
Cook: Well, I just thought it was kind of icky to see somebody crying when they’re singing. And little by little I’ve come to believe, that it’s certainly not something that you want to happen in particular, but if it does happen, obviously I have to control it, or I can’t make sound, but I don’t try to just shut it off totally because I think if you do, if you’re wary about all that time, then you’re closing all kinds of spigots that keep feeling from coming through.
Kaplan: But can you actually sing if you’re sniffling?
Cook: But, you know something? It’s not all about sound. It’s not all about perfect sound. Jimmy Durante is one of the finest singers around, and he doesn’t have a great voice. To me, does it move me?
Kaplan: Now, you also said that, because you were asked, “How can you do this night after night?” We’re talking about cabaret work now, where you have this high voltage emotional performance, which has to happen every night, and you said that, make no mistake about it, there is a planned structure to this. It is hopefully spontaneous, but you cannot do this unless you have really set up this emotional architecture.
Cook: Absolutely. Well, I have a plan, a musical plan, and an emotional plan, for each song that I work out as I work on these songs. You know, I often used to wonder, why am I so tired sometimes, because I’m not doing anything that’s all that physical. And I think actually it has more to do with adrenaline. You know, adrenaline takes a toll. It’s a wonderful thing, you can hit notes you never had heard before, but it does take a toll. I think that’s why singers are always so hungry after they sing. Because a shot of adrenaline, if you have a shot of adrenaline anytime, afterwards you’re quite hungry. So I think that’s part of it. I don’t know.
Kaplan: All right. Let’s come back to your music, and next is going to be Tchaikovsky.
Cook: Well, I fell in love with Valery Gergiev’s work a long, long time ago. I know some people say he’s histrionic and all that.
Kaplan: Well, he’s your emotional deliverer!
Cook: Absolutely! I love watching him conduct, and I always feel that whatever he does is absolutely in the service of the music. I felt that about Leonard Bernstein, that it’s all there to serve the music, that it’s not an ego-trip of some kind. I love his work. And I came to this next piece mainly because of Gergiev and I think I read a review of this particular recording of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, and because I love Gergiev so much, I ordered this recording. And my God, that final movement! Please! It’s thrilling, thrilling, thrilling, thrilling!
Kaplan: The powerful concluding moments of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev, a work and a conductor chosen by my guest on “Mad About Music”, singer Barbara Cook. All right, let’s turn to the care and feeding of the singer. I mean that literally because you said at one time – this was during a stretch when you didn’t think you were singing so well, that it had something to do with eating. What exactly should a singer avoid and what should they eat?
Cook: Well, I suppose it varies with people, I have no idea. This is a relatively recent thing, as I’ve gotten older. Well, I work with a nutritionist, who has helped me considerably. And I was getting short of breath, for no reason that I knew in particular. And when I do what I’m supposed to do, which is fish and vegetables and mainly though, stay away from chemicals. Stay away from all these additives that are put into food. So eat pure food, eat clean food, if you know what I mean. It is amazing what happens. In three or four days I can see a difference in my breathing. It’s like taking some kind of medicine or something. Well, it is, you know. Food is very powerful stuff.
Kaplan: All right, we’re now going to take a little diversion away from classical music, because we now come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard” where you have a chance to pick something completely not classical, not opera, and not the music that you sing for today. So, what did you bring us?
Cook: Well, I think this guy is terrific. His name is Keb’ Mo’. It must be at least ten years ago now, there was a concert, Bonnie Raitt was playing at the Beacon Theater on upper Broadway. And I had never heard of this man, Keb’ Mo’, he opened for her. The lights went down, and this young black guy came out, sat down, picked up his guitar and started singing and just blew me away! And the next day I bought his album. They’re blues. He sings blues. But they are contemporary blues in the sense that he writes his songs himself and he writes the blues about contemporary situations, you know, not about the Mississippi River kind of stuff. And I find this particular song called “City Boy” very, very moving.
Kaplan: “City Boy” sung by Keb’ Mo’, the “wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music”, singer Barbara Cook, 80 years old and still wowing audiences. You can catch her at Café Carlyle in New York where she’ll be opening on Tuesday. When we return I’ll ask Barbara Cook why she never sings any Cole Porter.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” singer Barbara Cook. Now I’m curious about one aspect about what you sing during your cabaret performances. I guess to be more accurate, I should really say, I’m interested in what you don’t sing because I’m surprised that Cole Porter, generally regarded as one of the greatest, doesn’t show up in your repertoire.
Cook: I don’t sing Cole Porter songs because there’s a kind of sophistication and wittiness about them that doesn’t seem to fit my sensibility. There are some of his songs I think I could do but you know -
Kaplan: “In The Still of the Night”? “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”? Those are very powerful and emotional, and I would think your kind of song actually.
Cook: Maybe so, but the sort of typical sophisticated Cole Porter thing is not my bag. So I don’t generally go to Cole Porter. But, my God, think of all the witty, witty lyrics he’s written! “You’re the Top”, you know he wrote 25,000 verses of choruses of that, and one just as witty as the other. And of course Irving Berlin, who wrote so purely. He was able to take subjects that in anybody else’s hands could be so treacly they’d just turn your stomach or make your teeth ache, they’d be too sweet. But he’s able to say them in such a simple way and I can’t remember who wrote this, do you know this song, “I saw you last night and got that old feeling”?
Kaplan: I know the song, but -
Cook: “When you came in sight, I got that old feeling. The moment you passed by, I felt a thrill. And when you touched my hand, my heart stood still. Once again, I seem to feel that old yearning. And I know the spark of love is still burning. There’ll be no new romance for me, it’s foolish to start, when that old feeling is still in my heart.” I mean -
Kaplan: My reaction is, you’re right, you’re right - you don’t have to sing!
Cook: It’s beautiful. Isn’t that beautiful?
Kaplan: Very moving.
Cook: Yeah, and that’s very Irving Berlin-esque. I wish I knew who wrote that song. I don’t. Maybe you can find out.
Kaplan: While we’re sitting here right now, we shall find out for you.
Cook: It’s just such a simple, pure, beautiful statement, isn’t it?
Kaplan: It certainly is and you know, our always-reliable production team in the control room, they just indicated that the lyricist is Sammy Fein.
Cook: Sammy Fein! Oh, my God! I didn’t know Sammy wrote that! He wrote the first show I did.
Kaplan: All right, but then I want to ask you to jump away from simplicity for a minute and come back to your list, and you have a rather sophisticated choice on your list, a contemporary composition by Michael Tippett.
Cook: Well, do you know, I don’t remember how I came to this piece. I think I probably heard it on the radio, and I was so taken with it. Michael Tippett the English composer, who died, I think, in the 90’s. And this is his Concerto for Double String Orchestra, and this particular recording is one that was conducted by him. There are, again, so many beautiful melodies in this, and I love the melody in the second movement. It’s - I think it’s adagio. I’m not sure. Is adagio slow? I don’t know all those musical terms.
Kaplan: Very, very slow.
Cook: I’m not sure anyway. I love the beginning of the first movement too, but it’s the second one that has a very, very beautiful melody.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the second movement of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the composer himself on the podium. Music chosen by my guest on “Mad About Music”, singer Barbara Cook. You know, it just occurred to me looking at our list of music, is that almost all of them come from 20th century composers and that’s the case with your final selection today, Gustav Mahler. But I gather that, once again, your choice has more to do with the conductor than the composer.
Cook: I would say, maybe six months ago, something like that, somebody sent me a YouTube of the conductor Gustavo Dudamel with his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, Venezuela, and they were part of The Proms concerts in London at the Royal Albert Hall. They sent me just this wonderful clip of their final encore, doing part of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side [Story]” dances. And, I tell you, it’s amazing to me. I put this on, and Dudamel lifted the baton, he did the downbeat, and instantly I thought, “Who is this? This guy’s a star.” I knew instantly, thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, OK, give me four seconds and I thought, “Who is this — what is this?” And of course I was so taken with their joy in playing music and their energy, their expertise, the idea that they could have so much fun physically and still play correctly, it was amazing to me. Well, since then, I’ve seen the two concerts that they did at Carnegie Hall, and I saw the final concert that Gustavo did with the Philharmonic, and I found them all so thrilling. This system, this music system they have in Venezuela, fascinates me. I am surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before. It’s about thirty-three – four years old. A man named Abreu, a conductor, and musician, had the idea that he would be able to literally save many young people in Venezuela who live in tremendous poverty. The poverty in Venezuela is dreadful still – that he might be able to save them from drugs and gangs and death and alcoholism and all of that. And what’s happened now is, he started out, I believe, with eight or eleven musicians in his garage, and then the second time there were seventy, and the third time there were like a hundred so that it grew very quickly and now there are over 250,000 young people and children in this music system. They are given instruments and what he felt – Abreu felt - as I understand it, I heard him speak - he felt that if these people could allow the music to come into their souls, that it would feed their spirits, and that if they could learn what a beautiful thing it is to work together, to make beautiful music, that that would heal them. And that’s exactly what has happened. So that now in Venezuela, the thing that young people want to do is to get into this orchestra – not to play sports – it’s a much bigger thing than sports. And he has saved, clearly saved the lives of many people. And this particular recording, they do Mahler so beautifully. I wish I could run out today and see them play. I can’t wait for them to come back to New York.
Kaplan: An excerpt from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old wunderkind who recently exploded on the scene, and captivated my guest today on “Mad About Music”, an 80-year-old wunderkind herself, cabaret singer Barbara Cook. Now that we’ve heard your final selection, we come to our own concluding section of the show which I’ve labeled “fantasyland” where you – and there’s no avoiding it – give us a true confession of a musical fantasy.
Cook: Now, does this have to be in music? Or can it just be anything I’d like to do or be? Because I’ve got a very clear idea.
Kaplan: Well, let’s take music first and then we’ll hear what you really are going to be doing in your next career.
Cook: Well, if in the music world, I guess I would want to be a great opera singer. But only if I could be great! I don’t want to just be a so-so opera singer.
Kaplan: And to be a dramatic soprano.
Cook: Yeah, I’d like to do Tosca and all those things!
Kaplan: OK, and then if you were outside of the field, you had another idea?
Cook: There’s no question in my mind. And always – it’s got to be great. If I can’t be great, I don’t want to do it. I’d love to be a great painter, an artist. No question. I love art just about as much as I do music.
Kaplan: And are there contemporary painters you particularly admire?
Cook: Oh, I love Howard Hodgkin, Chuck Close, Ellsworth Kelly. There are so many. Yes, I love art.
Kaplan: All right, well, that’s not necessarily a fantasy.
Cook: That’s an easy one for me. Aren’t you going to ask what’s my favorite curse word? That’s another show, right?
Kaplan: No, no, ours is a family show. I will ask you. By the way, what is your favorite curse word?
Cook: I can’t say on a family show!
Kaplan: All right. Well, notwithstanding your reticence, may I say Barbara Cook, you’ve been a wonderful guest, letting us into that special world of yours. Good luck at Café Carlyle on Tuesday where I’m sure you will wow them for the next six weeks. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”