A LOVE LETTER TO STEPHEN SONDHEIM
There are some things that come around only once or so in a lifetime–a horse like Secretariat, a painter like Picasso, a dancer as graceful as Nureyev, or a voice with the beauty and crystalline purity of Judy Collins.
Ms. Collins has taken her lumps from grumps who decry her lack of creativity. It's true that she's written very few songs in a career that's now in its 58th year. I'd argue that offerings such as "My Father," "Since You Asked," and "Blizzard" address with quality whatever her pen lacks in quantity, but let us concede that she has always shined brightest as an interpreter of songs written by others: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson…. She made her mark as a "folk" singer, but because Collins has always been drawn first and foremost to melody, it was pretty much inevitable that folk music wouldn't contain her. Along the way she also began to pick up songs she liked from composers such as Jacques Brel, Aaron Copland, Marvin Hamlisch, and Rogers and Hart. Almost without trying, she morphed from a folk singer to an interpreter of what for lack of a better term could be called "art songs." If there was a tipping point, it came in 1975, when Collins recorded what is now viewed as the definitive version of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." I do not exaggerate with the adjective "definitive." Consider that Sondheim has won 8 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer, an Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Laurence Olivier Award, and 8 Grammys, but only one of those Grammys is for Song of the Year: Collins' cover of "Send in the Clowns."
Call that the genesis of Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim. Collins and Sondheim became friends and, in May of 2016, Collins began rehearsing a full slate of his songs with the Greeley, Colorado Symphony Orchestra. She then launched a tour that took her to places exalted, including the Metropolitan Opera. Some of you have perhaps seen the PBS special of her Denver concert. If you've not, I'm sure it will be rebroadcast during numerous future pledge drive, though you'll have to put up with viewing it with numerous interrupting prattle of PBS barkers asking for money. A much better way to enjoy this glorious treat is to mail your check to your local PBS affiliate, then go online and purchase the DVD.
The concert has a few diversions–"Chelsea Morning" and a John Denver medley–but the rest is a select sampling from Sondheim shows. Each track is polished and superb, so it really boils down to which Sondheim show floats your boat to the high water mark. Personal favorites include: "I Remember Sky" from Primrose; "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George, "The Road You Didn't Take," from Follies, "Beyond the Sky" from A Little Night Music, and of course, "Send in the Clowns," one of my all time favorites (also from a Little Night Music). But let me return to my opening remark. One can like or not like the repertoire or performance style of Judy Collins, but you simply can't watch what she's doing and fail to marvel over what a force of nature she is. The woman before you is 77-years-old and her voice remains supple, strong, clear, and gorgeous. She has, of course, fallen a bit from her 1975 peak, but she has also learned a lot abut how to sing–when to drop half an octave to avoid cracking, how to nail a note to the instrumentation and let it drift on the wind, when to soar, and when to swoop. In my lifetime, I have witnessed ruthless Time diminish many of my musical heroes, but Time may have met his match in Judy Collins. The only way he's silencing this voice is to sneak up on Collins when she's not on stage.
Clips from the trailer: Collins at age 77!