Tenor Vinson Cole has lots of friends.
That’s not surprising. The Kansas City-born opera star is one of the warmest, most likable people you could possibly meet.
Sunday afternoon, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will celebrate this lovable artist with “Vinson Cole and Friends” at the Folly Theater.
The Lyric Opera wants to honor Cole for his contributions to music and opera in particular with this intimate recital.
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And Cole’s accomplishments are truly outstanding and worth celebrating.
After graduating from Southeast High School, Cole received his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City conservatory. From there he went on to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After completing vocal studies at Curtis, his opera career took off like a rocket.
Cole soon was appearing with major opera houses around the world, such as the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, La Scala in Italy and opera companies in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. He also made recordings with some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti. Cole also has found time to teach at the University of Washington School of Music, the Boston conservatory of music and the UMKC conservatory, where he is currently on the faculty.
Yes, a concert in Cole’s honor is long overdue. But the self-effacing singer was still surprised when told of the Lyric’s plans.
“This concert was the Lyric’s idea,” Cole said. “They approached me and they said they’d like to — quote unquote — honor me, and I said, ‘Why?’ They said because of my contributions to the music world and the opera world for all these many years. They wanted to do something to recognize what I’ve done.
“I was very touched and humbled by that and asked them what they would like to do. So they presented this to me, and I did some thinking about whom I could ask. It became my show since I got to choose the people to perform and talk to them. It was great fun getting to know people better and talk to my old friends again. It was a pleasure.”
One of those old friends Cole asked to participate was the soprano Christine Brewer. She began her career in the chorus of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, but has gone on to become an international opera star best known for her performances of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner.
“I love Christine Brewer,” Cole said. “We’re friends as well as colleagues. I called her, and she said, ‘Of course I can do it.’ We’ll be singing a duet from ‘Fidelio’ and she’ll also sing some Strauss songs.
“One of the highlights will be Christine doing a group of Harold Arlen songs. They’re songs her mother would sing to her as a child. I’ve heard her sing them in recital, and she has the style down.”
Another friend taking part is baritone Daniel Belcher. He grew up in St. Joseph, attended William Jewell College and is in the midst of his own international opera career. Belcher has performed starring roles with the San Francisco Opera, Grand Theatre de Geneve, New York City Opera and our own Lyric Opera. He also won a best opera recording Grammy for his work on “L’Amour de Loin” by Kaija Saariaho.
“I’ve never sung with Danny, but we’ve become friends in Kansas City,” Cole said. “We’re going to do the fourth act ‘La Boheme’ duet and we’re also doing music from ‘Carmen.’ And he’ll be singing some solo music as well.
“I encouraged everybody to sing what they want to sing. There’s not a theme. It’s not an operatic concert. It’s just a recital. This is what all recitals should be. Sing whatever you want.”
As for Cole, he’s chosen to open the concert with a group of Scottish folk songs arranged by Franz Joseph Haydn. The composer was beloved in the British Isles, where he spent two extended visits toward the end of his life, leading successful concerts of his music. It was during these visits that he became enamored of Scottish folk music.
“I was introduced to these songs when I heard Thomas Allen sing them in recital in New York,” Cole said. “Once I heard them, I was smitten with them. They’re in English and some of the texts are fun, some are profound, but they’re beautiful. They’re great openers.
“I’ve lived in Kansas City now for seven years,” Cole said. “I left when I was 21, and I never anticipated coming back except to visit family and friends. When I decided to come back, I was very unhappy. I was teaching at the New England Conservatory, and I wasn’t terribly happy with the city of Boston, so I decided to just come home to Kansas City and figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go next.
“I really didn’t anticipate it at all, but I have to say it’s been a great joy to come back to Kansas City. As I’ve grown up all these many years, so has Kansas City. People have been very, very gracious. It’s been a really wonderful experience to come back, which surprises me greatly but pleases me even more.”
Kansas City Symphony
Speaking of which, Michael Stern will be joined by two of his lifelong friends for the Kansas City premiere of a work commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony.
Violinist Jaime Laredo and his wife, cellist Sharon Robinson, will perform Andre Previn’s Double Concerto on Friday, Saturday and Jan. 18 with the Kansas City Symphony. Also on the program is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 the “Haffner” and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
Laredo, currently the conductor and music director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, has had an illustrious career as a violinist since his Carnegie Hall recital in 1960, which left the audience and critics in awe.
Laredo is certainly one of the greatest violinists of his generation, performing as soloist with the great orchestras of the world and, on a more intimate scale, making chamber music with other legendary musicians like Stern’s father, Isaac.
“I’ve known Michael (Stern) since before he was born,” Laredo said. “I played with his father in a quartet for 15 years, and I played probably dozens and dozens and dozens of concerts with his father in other guises, as well.
“And I’ve been working with Michael even when he was still a student. He’s one of the most extraordinary musicians that I know. I really mean that from the bottom of my heart. He’s just something so special, and it’s always just a joy to perform with him.”
Laredo’s wife, with whom he recently celebrated his 38th anniversary, has known Stern nearly as long.
“I have known him since he was a kid,” she said. “We are longtime friends and very devoted to one another. We’ve known each other for decades and have played quite a lot of music together. It’s been a wonderful musical and personal friendship for a long time. And now we’re looking forward to exploring this new work with our wonderful friend, Michael Stern, who I’m sure is going to have some great collaborative ideas.”
Previn’s Double Concerto was commissioned by eight orchestras, the Kansas City Symphony being one of them. The piece received its premiere in November by the Cincinnati Symphony, one of the other commissioning orchestras.
“I couldn’t believe the reception we had in Cincinnati,” Laredo said. “We actually got a standing ovation, and that’s fairly unusual for a new piece. That usually only happens with the Tchaikovsky concerto or the Brahms concerto. The audience just loved it.”
Stern believes that Kansas City audiences will love the work, as well.
“It’s very tonal, it’s very lyrical, very singing,” he said. “Previn wrote the piece specifically for Sharon Robinson and Jaime Laredo. Their style of playing and their general disposition is toward lyrical, melodic, tonal music, and he (Previn) wrote a piece that plays to their strengths and also to their likes and what audiences like. Which is not to say it’s playing down to the audience. On the contrary, this is music that is supposed to sing, and it does.”
Previn, 85, has had one of the most remarkable careers in music, as a composer, (classical works and Hollywood film scores) conductor and jazz pianist. And he’s going stronger than ever. According to Stern, Previn is a living legend.
“He has a (Leonard) Bernstein-like talent,” Stern said. “He’s been a force in American music for almost seven decades. And the guy has done everything and continues to write music. It is fantastic.
“He is a wonderful musical mind. He’s a great composer, conductor, pianist, teacher and, like Bernstein, he used to have this series on television explaining music. The guy is just brilliant. And not only in the way that we think, but he’s also one of the great Hollywood movie composers. He won an Oscar.”
Robinson, like her husband, is one of the finest musicians of her generation, and is pleased that Previn was commissioned to compose his new work. By sharing costs, the double concerto was affordable for all of them. More importantly, Robinson is very happy that she’ll be able to perform the work eight times in the coming year, a rarity for a new piece of music.
“And luckily it turned out to be a great piece,” she said “It’s a wonderful piece, full of Andre’s signature sound, which is full of very heartfelt, deeply emotional melodies and also kind of a jazzy, very spirited sound. Some of his film writing comes through, too.
“It’s in three movements, and the slow movement is a very, very gorgeous, extended melody. The third movement is a very fast, jazzy romp. I think people will go out humming it.”