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Marilyn Horne and friends celebrate her 80th birthday

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Renee Fleming, David Daniels, Jamie Barton, Isabel Leonard, Barbara Cook

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You may have noticed how dark the New York City sky was dark last night. That was not only due to cloud cover, or bright city lights. It to the fact that most of the brightest stars had joined forces on the stage of Zankel Hall to commemorate the 80th birthday of American opera legend Marilyn Horne. The evenings concert ended a week-long series of master classes taught by Ms. Horne herself, and also another opera great, Christa Ludwig, and Ms. Horne’s personal pianist for the past 50 years, Martin Katz.

Our hosts for the evening were Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey. Throughout the evening, they would regale us with anecdotes from Ms. Horne, and conducted the evening like a history lesson, or an episode of “This Is Your Life.” They were clearly there to have fun without pretension, and were able to laugh at and with each other. They even sang a heart warming rendition of Lerner and Lowe’s “I Remember It Well” from Gigi which opened our second half.

Each song was chosen specifically to highlight Ms. Horne’s illustrious career beginning with Lester Lynch singing “Simple Gifts” and “Zion’s Walls” accompanied by Warren Jones. Mr. Lynch possessed a large, booming baritone voice that filled the hall with the sunny sounds of American poetry. Countertenor David Daniels then took the stage to sing Gluck’s “O del mio dolce ardor.” Choosing to stick closer to the original score, he replaced the often over-ornamented passages with a smoother, more text-focused interpretation. The second act found him singing a staple of his, “Blackberry Winter” by Alec Wilder, before which he quipped that Ms. Horne made sure he would sing this piece for her, saying, “You don’t say no to Ms. Horne.”

Tenor Piotr Beczala sang beautifully in Beethoven’s “Adelaide.” His rich, brassy voice, akin to a young Frank Lopardo, mixed very well with Renée Fleming in the second act in a duet from The Merry Widow. Ms. Fleming, who did not let a dress rehearsal the day of nor the next day stop her from performing, sang Wagner’s “Träme” from his Wesendonck Lieder.

The standout in the first act was Jamie Barton singing “Urlicht” from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Her communicative instrument is simply incredible. She was able to totally invelope the audience in a single arch; most notably in her final phrase. One wonders when she will be presenting her own program at Carnegie Hall… Which was followed so sweetly by 2013 Richard Tucker Award winner Isabel Leonard’s calm “Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito”

The first act closed with Jamie Barton and David Daniels in a duet from Giulio Cesare. The colors of those two voices juxtaposed against the other melted seamlessly together to create one delicious operatic cocktail; a drink I would not mind having again.

After intermission, our hosts introduced us to Brenda Rae who sang “O beau pays de la Touraine” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Though she sang in the first act, the second act is where she really shined. Tossing out high notes like they were nothing, swooping up and down coloratura passages like a breeze, Ms. Rae did everything but literally light fireworks, but still achieved the same thrilling effect. She is currently making debuts all over Europe (taking a page from Ms. Horne’s beginnings), and she is certainly poised to make a big splash on this side of the pond very soon.

Other high lights from the second act included Mr. Beczala singing a very passionate “Eri tu” from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, and an equally passionate and gorgeous “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola by Ms. Leonard.

Last, but certainly, and by no means least, the Grande Dame of broadway, Barbara Cook serenaded her long-time friend, and sometimes singing partner, with Arthur Butler’s “Here’s to Life” accompanied by her music director Lee Musiker. An octogenarian herself, Ms. Cook still has the same gusto and vocal power to deliver with great depth of emotion and passion that conveys itself in every note of truth that she sang, especially in the line, “For I have learned that all you give is all you get, so give it all you’ve got,” which is exactly what she did. And exactly what Marilyn Horne has done, and continues to do with her life and career. Not only as a performer, but also as a teacher and mentor to the next generation of opera singers. She is currently the head of the Music Academy of the West, and regularly conducts master classes in conjunction with Carnegie Hall.

Her passion and love for music and life itself was equally represented in the pianists last night. To watch Warren Jones perform is to witness a lover of music evoke his muse with the greatest delight. The passion he portrays on his face is matched by the product his hands produce on the keys. Of course Martin Katz can do no wrong, but he has proven that point many times over in his distinguished career.

After the final applause receded, Ms. Horne took the stage to join her friends on stage, and shared some very heartfelt words of thanks to the audience and to her attending family. She joked that this was birthday she thought she might not see, but given her strong will and sheer determination, it is a safe bet that she will see many more birthdays to come, "God willin' and the creek don't rise," as we say down South.

For more information about the Carnegie Hall, click here.

For more information about Marilyn Horne, click here.

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