It Feels Like Love: Sasha Cooke on Singing (and Keeping It Real)

April 26, 2017

“This season is something like 27 cities, with totally different pieces, contracts, vocal requirements, stamina. It’s complex!”

Welcome to the whirlwind world of Sasha Cooke. The Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano appears with The Philadelphia Orchestra May 3, 5, and 6 at Verizon Hall and May 9 at Carnegie Hall, in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”).

In demand in concert halls around the globe, Cooke is renowned for taking on challenging new music, as well as repertory standards. And she admits she sometimes envies colleagues who specialize in a certain composer and get to immerse themselves in that music for months on end. Instead, she’s warming up with music she’ll be doing many weeks away, while rehearsing something completely different that’s coming up in the next few days.

And yet, when she’s onstage, singing her heart out with a world-class orchestra in support, none of that matters.

“In the best of circumstances, it feels like love does, a little bit. You feel this sense of comfort, support, and ease, and the idea of sharing with each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You’re doing what humans should do best: come together and share an experience. It varies from orchestra to orchestra, and depending on the conductor and the piece. But in the best of circumstances it feels like this love-filled relationship. It’s an incredible gift to feel that. Plus the audience feels it, too, that freedom, and beauty, and ease—all of those things.”

Cooke has sung with the Philadelphians before, but never with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “I am so thrilled, I have only heard amazing things about him. I don’t know him personally, but from what Philadelphia musicians have told me about him, I think we’ll hit it off because he’s a very grateful person, grateful for every moment. With musicians like Yannick, for whom it’s all about the music, you end up having a fabulous time!”

In Bernstein’s “Jeremiah,” Cooke sings the moving narration, taken from the Book of Lamentations. “It’s a very emotional piece. The way Bernstein set it, the orchestration is so powerful and personal. When I’m performing it, I envision the destruction of Jerusalem, and you can kind of hear it in the orchestration. The idea that a city is personified as a widow is so evocative. And it has this really dramatic ending. I would say the biggest challenge is not getting too emotional, trying to stay centered.”

Cooke actually has a secret weapon in the fight to stay centered: two small children, who often travel with her. “Being a parent keeps you humble! And that’s a good quality in being a performer. You can’t stress out.” She recalls a particularly eventful transcontinental flight, complete with diaper disasters. “And I thought, this is one of those moments, like in a performance, if someone misses their entrance you do your best, you connect to the moment, there’s no time to freak out. A baby doesn’t respond if you’re ‘oh my gosh!’ You have to be centered, calm, and respond to the moment. You learn to just go with the flow and do the best you can. Sometimes singers can become too precious. ‘I have to sleep 10 hours, I have to have a massage, and a tuna sandwich.’ But does that really benefit your art? Maybe, sometimes, but I also think it’s good just to be real. I sometimes liken this to making Thanksgiving dinner. You have eight different dishes, with different cooking times … and one oven!”

Cooke doesn’t mention that, in the case of her upcoming appearances with the Orchestra, it’s as if several hundred of her closest friends are coming to that Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s sure to be a feast for the soul.

(Sasha Cooke performs Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony May 3, 5, and 6 at the Kimmel Center, and May 9 at Carnegie Hall. The program also includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Radu Lupu, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2; Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts. For more information and tickets, please click here.)

Photo by Dario Acosta