Barbara Cook approaches a song from the inside out, judging the weight of each measure, the point behind each word in a lyric. So when she sings, she starts from a place where there's nothing but truth. No artifice, no exaggeration, no self-aggrandizing flourish.
Small wonder that Cook, who gives a concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this Saturday, a week after turning 85, remains one of the most treasured vocal artists of our time.
The years may have shaved some brightness and some top notes from her silvery soprano, but the glow remains as enveloping as ever. And the phrasing — it just continues to get richer. Cook has fully earned her status as a living legend. Not that she notices.
"No, I don't think about that," she said from New York, where she gave an 85th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. Pop star Josh Groban was among the celebs who joined her onstage. Another was stellar mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who told Cook: "I wanted to be you when I was growing up. And I still do."
"I was nervous at first — Carnegie gets your attention, no matter how many times you've played there — but once I started, I felt extremely relaxed," she said. "Part of it was because I love the material in this particular program so much."
She will bring that program to the Meyerhoff, where she last performed 21 years ago during a benefit for what was then the College of Notre Dame (Saturday's concert is presented by the Baltimore Symphony, which will not be performing).
The material is largely drawn from her just-released album "Lover Man," which finds the Atlanta-born singer outside the Broadway repertoire that has long been her specialty. She explores such vintage numbers as "When Sunny Gets Blue" and the album's title track, as well as a folk song best known from its 1960s treatment by the Animals, "House of the Rising Sun."
"I didn't know if people would accept this from me," Cook said. "I was afraid they would think I had gone too far. But I love doing it. I can't wait to get out and sing it for you."
The singer's career was first made on Broadway, where she created some plum roles: Cunegonde in the 1956 Leonard Bernstein musical "Candide," bringing down the house with the coloratura showpiece "Glitter and Be Gay"; a year later, Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," which won Cook a Tony Award; and, in 1962, Amalia in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's "She Loves Me."
By the 1970s, problems with alcohol, weight and depression took a toll (her marriage to an acting teacher ended in divorce 1965). But Cook turned her life around and, with pianist and arranger Wally Harper, shifted her focus to concerts. She never looked back.
She became a celebrated interpreter of Stephen Sondheim's music while also putting an indelible imprint on classics by older generation musical theater giants. Prestigious engagements, from the White House to London's Royal Albert Hall, are the norm for the song stylist, who gave a solo performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2006.
"That was really a big deal," Cook said. "Other singers have rented the place, but I am still the only female nonclassical performer to be presented there by the Metropolitan Opera itself."
As her triumph in "Candide" demonstrated, Cook could have tried out for opera, but she did not consider that path. "I had high notes, but I didn't take them seriously," she said.
She did take her voice lessons seriously. She had to. Her teacher in New York in the early 1950s, Robert Kobin ("He really put my voice together"), required her to learn arias by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. That came in handy when she auditioned for "Candide."
"I never sang this stuff outside my teacher's studio," Cook said. "I never sang above a high G. But at the audition, after I sang my usual things, Bernstein asked if I had anything else. I said, 'I guess I could do Madame Butterfly's entrance aria.' And I did. He was pretty impressed," the singer added with a little laugh.
Cook also impressed a 4-year-old Michael Kaiser when she starred in "The Music Man."
"That was the first musical I saw," said Kaiser, president of the
. "I remember her perfectly. Now, she won't sing anything from 'Music Man' for me, ever."
She does other things for Kaiser, though. In addition to performing periodically at the center, she agreed to his request to curate a series of intimate vocal concerts he launched there in 2007, Barbara Cook's Spotlight.
Kaiser remains one of Cook's most enthusiastic fans.
"She's such a great interpreter," he said. "She makes songs come alive. She makes the words mean something. And she has a very distinctive sound. You always know it's Barbara. She's still going strong because she's not a belter, and she's got a really good vocal technique."
Honor in 2011, doesn't follow any regimen of exercises to keep the voice in shape. She just follows common sense.
"If it hurts, I don't do it," she said. "If I have to be careful, I'm careful. I guess that's it. A lot of it is just genes. My health is fine, except for a bad back and an arthritic knee, but they don't keep me from singing. People live longer and they're healthier. Look [at 86-year-old] Tony Bennett. He's singing great."
It was Bennett who inspired a signature feature of a Cook concert — singing the last encore unamplified. After hearing Bennett do that in the early '80s, "I thought, what the heck, I'll steal it," she said.
When she isn't onstage, Cook is apt to be reading or painting (she enjoyed visiting the American Vision Art Museum the last time she was in Baltimore). She might also be found listening to a certain flamboyant pop star.
"Most people would not expect that I like Lady Gaga," Cook said. "She has a terrific voice, and she's smart as hell. And I think she's has wonderful messages for young people — that you can do it, that you're OK."
Each time she performs, Cook sends a message, too, about the quality of the Great American Songbook, and the long-lasting value of direct, honest artistry.
Had she never taken a musical path, Cook might be a retired doctor or biologist now.
"The very first job I applied for, right out of high school, was a laboratory assistant," she said. "I was interested in medical things. But I was told I would have to go to college unless I wanted to just wash petri dishes. So I went to New York. I didn't know if the world was going to let me sing or not."
The world made the right decision. So did Cook.
"And I don't have any desire to stop," she said. "I'm so grateful. I'm very, very blessed."