Vocal Radiance

The enchanting power of voice takes center stage with leading operatic mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in an intimate recital.

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Two-time Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has been called a “luminous standout” by the New York Times and “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” by Opera News. Ms. Cooke has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, English National Opera, Seattle Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others, and with over 80 symphony orchestras worldwide frequently in the works of Mahler. Last season marked Ms. Cooke’s appointment at the Music Academy of the West as Co-Director of the Lehrer Vocal Institute. Her album how do I find you was nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Vocal Solo Album.

how do I find you featuring 17 newly written songs by Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Jimmy Lopez and others, is intended as a tribute to both the struggles and hopes of artists that have been wrought by the pandemic. The album can be listened to on all streaming platforms.

A graduate of Rice University and The Juilliard School, Sasha Cooke also attended the Music Academy of the West, the Aspen Festival, the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute, the Wolf Trap Foundation, the Marlboro Music Festival, the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and Seattle Opera and Central City Opera’s Young Artist Training Programs. Ms. Cooke has given masterclasses throughout the United States, Australia and Canada.  

John Churchwell, piano

One of the leading collaborative pianists of his generation, John Churchwell enjoys a career on the concert stage as well as in the nation’s leading opera houses.

In August 2011, John was named Head of Music for San Francisco Opera. Previously, he was an assistant conductor for both the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera for 14 years. He has assisted on more than 140 productions and has collaborated with some of the world’s leading conductors including James Levine, Nello Santi, Nicola Luisotti, James Conlon, Donald Runnicles, Sir Charles Mackerras, Marco Armiliato, Fabio Luisi, and Eun Sun Kim. John Churchwell has been a Music Academy teaching artist since 2000.

A champion of American music, John was involved in the world premieres of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. In recent seasons, he has prepared the world premieres of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier, as well as the Philip Glass opera Appomattox, the Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan collaboration The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, as well as the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West by John Adams, all for San Francisco Opera. From 2005-2008 John was the official accompanist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.

This summer saw John appear in recitals with Renée Fleming, Sasha Cooke, and Susanna Phillips. He has partnered with some of today’s most sought-after vocalists including Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Diana Damrau, Larry Brownlee, Lisette Oropesa, Isabel Leonard, Frederica von Stade, Dawn Upshaw, and Carol Vaness. Recent appearances include San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California with tenor Michael Fabiano and the Hollywood Bowl for Prairie Home Companion with soprano Ellie Dehn. In addition to song recitals, John is an active chamber musician and has appeared regularly with members of the Metropolitan and San Francisco’s Opera Orchestras.

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, John studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and Tufts University where he earned a Bachelor of Music in Piano and a Bachelor of Arts in French, respectively. He continued his studies at the University of Minnesota where he earned a Master of Music and a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Accompanying. John studied song literature at the Banff Centre for the Arts and remains the only pianist to be invited for three summers as a Tanglewood Fellow. He is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program.


About the music


Had George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) followed the same career path as his fellow Germans Telemann and Bach, he could have reached the same lofty heights in the realm of Lutheran church music. Instead Handel embraced opera, a pursuit that led him to Italy and ultimately England. As the co-producer of his own operas, Handel’s fortunes rose and fell with the tastes of London’s ticket-buying public, and so he continually updated his style to stay ahead of changing fashions, proving time and again his staying power as a composer and entrepreneur. The biggest pivot came in 1740, when he came to grips with the ever-shrinking audience for operas sung in Italian. He wrote his last opera that year and dedicated himself from that point forward to oratorios sung in English. (An oratorio differs from an opera in that the performance takes place on a concert stage, without sets, staging or costumes, a distinction designed to avoid antagonizing the church when depicting religious subjects.) His second-to-last oratorio was Theodora from 1750, which included the aria As With Rosy Steps the Morn, sung by Theodora’s friend Irene as part of their secret Christian worship when it was forbidden in the Roman Empire.


Claude Debussy (1862-1918) had a typical start for a French composer, attending the Paris Conservatory and dabbling in the modern sounds of Richard Wagner, but his outlook expanded dramatically in the 1890s, setting him on a course to reshape the aesthetics of concert music. Influenced by sounds he heard at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris (especially Javanese gamelan), and drawing on friendships with poets and painters, Debussy filtered his emerging ideas about symbols and impressions into a new musical language, one in which sounds were celebrated purely for their sensory appeal. In 1897, he set three poems from a collection recently published by his friend Pierre Louÿs, who wrote what he claimed were translations of songs by “Bilitis”—a fictitious female bard from Ancient Greece, in the mold of Sappho. Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis begins by evoking the Greek myth of the satyr Pan and his seductive flute, a subject that was a source of continual fascination for the composer. The final song recalls satyrs and naiads, while visiting their icy tomb.


The German opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was living in Zurich, exiled from Dresden after his participation in the May Uprising of 1849, when he met Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Otto was a wealthy retired merchant, and he became an important patron for Wagner in Zurich. When the Wesendoncks moved to a newly-built villa in 1857, they invited Wagner and his wife, Minna, to stay in a smaller house on the property.


Wagner was secretly infatuated with Mathilde Wesendonck, a poet and author, and—judging by her portrait—a real beauty. It remains a matter of debate whether their affair was ever consummated; regardless, Mathilde was one of the most significant women in Wagner’s life, and their thwarted romance inspired Wagner to develop Tristan und Isolde, a passionate and tragic love story. While he was beginning that opera, he wrote a set of five songs for voice and piano based on Mathilde’s poems, known as the Wesendonck Lieder. The cycle begins with The Angel, a sweet and peaceful song in which rich harmonies illuminate the text, like when a radiant and foreign E-major chord enters with the word “Himmel” (heaven). Stand Still! begins with the “roaring and rushing wheel of time,” and the kinetic accompaniment recalls the frantic piano patterns of Schubert. The mournful third song, In the Hothouse, was one of two Wagner identified as “studies for Tristan und Isolde.” The fourth song, Anguish, throbs with heartache, and saves a final gush of feeling for the coda. Dreams became the basis of the immortal love duet from the second act of Tristan und Isolde.


Among living American composers, Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) stands out for the uncommon beauty of her orchestral music, including a piece that has been performed by hundreds of orchestras, blue cathedral, and a series of concertos that earned Higdon three Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. She is also an accomplished vocal composer, with one grand opera and many smaller works for soloists and choruses in her catalog. Her latest song cycle, Summer Music, was commissioned by the Tucson Desert Song Festival for Sasha Cooke in 2022. Higdon wrote her own lyrics for Summer Hue, which she described as “a memory of the color/feel of summer from my childhood.” Lyrics for Crossed Threads  come from the 19th-century American poet Helen Hunt Jackson; according to Higdon, “some of the sung lines are slightly unpredictable, just like those spider webs that feel randomly spun.” In Summer Night (with words from another 19th-century American, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard), “the unsettled rhythms and chord changes imply that things are always evolving and are never really settled,” Higdon writes, “and so we consistently yearn.”


The accomplishments of Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944) as a conductor—including his 25-year tenure at the San Francisco Symphony and his role as the founder and longtime leader of the New World Symphony—have overshadowed the marvelous contributions he has made as a composer, a craft he studied at the University of Southern California. Songwriting is really in Thomas’ blood, as the grandson of some the biggest stars of Yiddish theater in the early 20th century (The Thomashevskys). Even a world-weary song like “Not everyone thinks that I’m beautiful,” featuring his own lyrics, has a personal and approachable feeling steeped in popular music. 


Thomas composed “Grace” to honor the 70th birthday of his conducting mentor, Leonard Bernstein. This homage to the pleasures of life and music holds special poignancy as Thomas continues to live (and work tirelessly) with the terminal brain cancer that was diagnosed three years ago.


Thursday, March 7, 2024


141 S County Rd
Palm Beach, FL 33480

CMSPB does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability and we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Site maintained by Teller  |  © 2020-2022 Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach  | All rights reserved.