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Stephen Sondheim/Barbara Cook: Losing My Mind

From Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center’s Director of Contemporary Programs (American Songbook, White Light Festival, Mostly Mozart Festival)

I, of course, love Sondheim and this is one of his iconic songs. However, Sondheim (or for that matter any composer, but especially Sondheim) is only as good as the person singing the song and Barbara Cook was the best. I first heard her perform this song at the Café Carlyle and, while I’d seen Follies and heard the song before, I’d never really heard it until then. The song sprung to life right before me.

Cook and Sondheim tell the story of someone losing their mind, but not to something nefarious, to love. Her interpretation of this song brings out all its nuances both lyrically and melodically, which is incredibly difficult. It’s walking that edge between being a crazy, loony showstopper of a song and the humanity, ecstasy, and pathos of being in love. Barbara Cook excels at this as do Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald, who are now charged with carrying on Barbara’s spirit—wonderful actresses and superlative musicians who can really understand all the different layers of Sondheim’s music, lyrics, and characters.

Mavis Staples: A House is Not a Home

From Jill Sternheimer, Lincoln Center’s Director of Public Programming (Midsummer Night Swing, Lincoln Center Out of Doors):

Everybody loves Mavis Staples. She’s an American treasure, best known for providing a soundtrack for the civil rights movement with her family, The Staples Singers, with gospel-tinged classics like “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway.” But today, I want to share my love of her version of a classic song, usually associated with Luther Vandross: “A House is Not a Home.” Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, arguably two of the best songwriters of the 20th century, “A House Is Not a Home” is one of the most enduring songs in their treasure trove of a catalog. I cannot think of a duo who wrote more songs that I sang in front of a mirror holding a hairbrush as a mic!

The song is set up with the lyrics “A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sitting there. But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home when there is no one there to hold you tight and no one you can kiss goodnight.” Deceptively simple and pedestrian. But in the mighty hands of Mavis Staples, the stunningly uncomplicated and perfect poetry makes itself gut-wrenchingly known. A lonely Saturday night song sung with a Sunday morning feel. To hear a singer as warm and passionate as Mavis interpret the song gives me goosebumps every single time I hear it.

Mavis Staples performs a free show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Saturday, August 11.

Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David

Gato Preto: Pirão

From Jordana Leigh, Director of the David Rubenstein Atrium (Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Streets), which presents free performances all year long:

I first got a glimpse of the band Gato Preto at WOMEX last year. I was seeing 12 bands a night, from all over the world, and they really stood out—African, edgy, and beyond fierce. I had a friend with me who was translating the lyrics, which were unapologetically calling out government corruption. It was this cool, strong woman—Gata Misteriosa—fronting the band. With her aggressive vocals and the band’s penchant for masks, make-up, and overall fashion style, Gato Preto is really defining the global Afrofuturism scene.

The band’s members have roots in Mozambique, Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, but this song talks about making a very common Brazilian dish, pirão, essentially extending their international identity and connections. This song and this band, which delivered a killer show at the Atrium back in July, really capture my curatorial vision for the Atrium’s programming: a celebration of the international diversity of our city. Embracing different cultures and transcending both borders and genres, Gato Preto is a shining example of that ethos.

George Frideric Handel: Ombra mai fu

From Hanako Yamaguchi, Lincoln Center’s Director of Music Programming (Great Performers, Mostly Mozart Festival, White Light Festival):

It is incredible how this simple plaintive melody that begins with a note materializing out of nothing, suspended in space, never fails to affect me profoundly. Whenever I hear George Frideric Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu,” I am transformed.  The work exemplifies the enormous power music has to lift and move one’s spirit.

In this aria from Handel’s opera Serse, first performed in 1738, the Persian king sings to his beloved plane tree, praising its beauty. It is preceded by a brief recitative (“Frondi tenere e belle”), which delicately sets the pastoral mood. Together they last just over three minutes and in that short time you are transported to another world. The song is a simple ode to a tree, but in it there is everything—a moment of fathomless grace and a nearly 300-year-old example of how being mindful can reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary.

I vividly remember the first time I heard a live and ravishing account of the work at the 1998 Mostly Mozart Festival by French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and Concerto Köln. There have been so many brilliant performances since then. However, the two that stand out for me are by countertenor Andreas Scholl and the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—Andreas, for his pure and angelic delivery, and Lorraine for embodying all of humanity in her rich, earthy, and soulful embrace. Listen and I dare you not to be moved.

Andreas Scholl, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, 1999 (for best quality, I suggest the Harmonia Mundi recording.)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Harry Bicket, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, 2004

Leonard Bernstein: Some Other Time

From Charles Cermele, Lincoln Center’s Producer of Contemporary Programming
(American Songbook):

The universal appeal of these lyrics and the musical sophistication of this composition attract singers and musicians from many musical genres. The blues-inflected chord changes make it a favorite of jazz musicians, and vocalists are drawn to the emotional truth underlying the clever word play. “Some Other Time” was written for the 1944 musical On the Town by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City meet three women before returning to their ship to leave for war. Omitted from the film version, the song is shared by four characters in the stage musical, knowing they may never see each other again, but hoping to catch up some other time.

It was the late 1980s when I first heard this performance by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. I was a performer in my late 20s and the story of young people faced with their possible final goodbyes rang terribly true to me as I lost friends and lovers to AIDS. I began using “Some Other Time” as the encore for my solo concerts, unsure how long we had to enjoy this beautiful song. In this recording, Bill Evans communicates so much in the very last moments of his performance. Tony Bennett sings the final notes. The piano goes softer and higher up on the scale until it disappears completely in the middle of the melody. And then a final, isolated chord.

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

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