At her New York Philharmonic debut in 1961, Barbara Cook nearly caused a riot when she sailed through Leonard Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" during a Pension Fund benefit. Ms. Cook had introduced the coloratura aria in the original Broadway production of Bernstein's Candide in 1956, and she soon became Broadway's favorite soprano, with a voice like liquid mercury and a warm, embracing presence. She won a Tony Award in 1957 for her portrayal of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and by the time she made her Philharmonic debut composers were writing musicals with her in mind.
Philharmonic audiences had to wait more than two decades for Ms. Cook's second appearance, in 1985. This time she stunned the audience with an achingly beautiful, deeply personal performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" during the Orchestra's concert staging of Follies. Her quietly devastating rendition of the song stopped the show cold — no mean feat, considering the high-powered talent at Avery Fisher Hall that night: Carol Burnett belting "I'm Still Here," Elaine Stritch stealing every number she was in, and Mandy Patinkin emoting up a storm.
Now Barbara is back with the Philharmonic, this time celebrating her 80th birthday. She is one of the rare Broadway and cabaret artists to perform solo with the Philharmonic, and seats for her November 19 performance sold so quickly that a second concert, on November 20, had to be added. She is performing standards from the American songbook, unexpected repertoire, and songs by Bernstein. "I am absolutely thrilled to be given a whole evening to sing with the New York Philharmonic," says Ms. Cook. "Most singers perform a couple of songs or a few arias, so I am delighted that the Philharmonic has given me a whole program. What a great way to celebrate my birthday!"
You'd think anyone at her stage in life would slow down, but Barbara Cook is in the midst of a hyperactive career that takes her to intimate clubs and large concert halls all over the world. In 2006 she became the first female pop singer ever to be presented in a solo concert by The Metropolitan Opera. This October she took on a new role — as impresario — when the Kennedy Center launched the Barbara Cook's Spotlight series, for which she curated performances by a brightly eclectic range of her favorite theater singers.
Looking back on her 1961 Philharmonic debut, Ms. Cook recalls a tumult of emotions. "The whole thing was daunting. It was my first time singing with the New York Philharmonic, and we were in Carnegie Hall, and it was 'Glitter and Be Gay,' which always made me nervous," she confides. "I kept saying to myself, 'This is not Carnegie Hall, this is Indianapolis.' Once I got onstage, I do remember thinking that I was so lucky to be surrounded by such gorgeous music, played by such a gifted orchestra. And the next thing, I was backstage, the audience was yelling and stamping their feet, and Lenny was so pleased."
She was able to sit back and enjoy her return for the Philharmonic's 1985 Follies, when the cast remained onstage."Everybody should experience that one time in their life — to be onstage with a beautiful orchestra like the Philharmonic," says Ms. Cook. "It's better than any headphone anybody ever made. You know, those performances of Follies with the Philharmonic were among the most exciting that I ever had on a stage anywhere."
Over the decades, Barbara Cook has kept up with the Philharmonic — as an audience member. "I love Anne-Sophie Mutter, and I always attend when she performs with the Philharmonic. Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, and all those guys: I make a point of hearing them when they are with the Philharmonic. Really, I love the New York Philharmonic. They are a virtuosic organization, and we are so privileged to have them here."
Robert Sandla is the Editor-in-Chief of Symphony magazine.