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Sasha Cooke joins the Miró Quartet for innovative recital

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Growing up in College Station, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke remembers attending some of her first operas at Austin Lyric Opera.

Critics lauded young mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and she sang the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic.” She also was part of the cast that sang on the Grammy-winning DVD release.

Those are heady achievements for the 30-year-old who grew up in College Station. But she remembers fondly when her parent brought her to Austin, where she saw her first operas at Austin Lyric Opera.

“I remember sitting right behind the conductor, in the first row or so, and thinking that the singers were super-human and they had super-human singing ability,” she says by phone from Ohio recently where she was singing with the noted Cleveland Orchestra. “I was in awe.”

Cooke joins the Miró Quartet on Thursday for a recital at Bates Recital Hall.

Though her parents — both professors of Russian at Texas A&M University — are not musicians themselves, Cooke said their appetite for the arts meant she had plenty of exposure to opera, even if it meant family road trips to Austin or Houston.

It was a remarkable if not quiet superhuman trajectory that took Cooke first studying voice at Rice University then to Julliard for its competitive graduate program and young artists’ traineeship. In fact, she was still in Julliard’s young artists program when composer Adams personally recommended to Met leaders that Cooke — then just 26 — get the role of Kitty in Adams’ opera about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb.

Critics’ praised her “luminous tone” and “keen sense of verbal nuance.”

“I’m so grateful (to Adams),” Cooke said. “I love contemporary music, and I guess I have a knack for completely strange (musical) poetry, but I like that newness of contemporary (compositions). It takes you by surprise.”

Cooke first met the Miró Quartet — the University of Texas string quartet in residence — a few years ago at a chamber music festival when she joined them in concert for Respighi’s dramatic Lyric Poem “Il Tramonto.” No sooner was that concert over when plans were hatched for future collaboration.

“I love opera, but I love singing chamber music as well,” said Cooke. “They both feed each other, and that keeps your scope larger.”

An expressive song cycle by of Hugo Wolf is followed by an elegy by Puccini before the first half of the program ends the Respighi.

The second half features American music starting with Barber’s darkly romantic “Dover Beach” a setting of a Matthew Arnold poem. George Crumb’s distinctly modern “Three Early Songs” then sets up the finishing piece, an upbeat trio of Copland’s Old American Songs.

Miró violist John Largess — who wrote new arrangements for some the pieces because several were written for baritone, not mezzo soprano — said when they were curating the program, the fivesome strove to craft a program that would have not just an emotional arc, but even the suggestion of a dramatic trajectory as well.

“We wanted a program with a lot of cohesive interplay without feeling so obviously themed,” he said. “We kind start the program in a kind darker more thoughtful place and end in lightness. And we’re going to ask audience members not to applaud between songs so the connection between pieces isn’t broken.”

Said Cooke, “I think of (our program) like a multicourse dinner. There’s an order to the dishes and when they’re served and that makes it a whole experience.”

Besides the sentimentality of returning to Central Texas, Cooke is looking forward to something else: Her parents will be available to baby-sit her 18-month-old girl. Cooke and her husband, baritone Kelly Markgraf, live in Chicago and juggling performance schedules proves challenging.

“My husband and I are like two ships passing in the night. We’ve literally handed off the baby at their airport,” Cooke said.

Next year Cooke will sing with major roles with Houston Grand Opera and Dallas Opera. But Sunday both Cooke and her husband will sing in College Station as featured guests with the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra

“You can’t forget where you come from,” Cooke said.

Sasha Cooke and the Miró Quartet