AUDRA McDONALD: How Glory Goes (Nonesuch 79580-2)
Audra McDonald's second solo album, How Glory Goes, is every bit as good as her first, Way Back to Paradise. If anything, it should be somewhat more accessible to some listeners; while the earlier album consisted exclusively of work by new composers, eight of the fourteen songs on How Glory Goes were written long before Ms. McDonald was born.
Which is not to say that McDonald's choices are not adventurous. Highlighted are five great Arlen songs. These are late period Arlen, including three of his art song-like beauties: "I Had Myself a True Love," "A Sleepin' Bee," and "I Never Has Seen Snow." We have heard these songs before, and sung exceptionally well; but McDonald seems born for them. There is also an unusual rendition of "The Man That Got Away," with the singer accompanied by a lone piano (played and arranged by Lee Musiker). Unusual in that it discards the chromatic two-bar descending figure upon which Arlen built the song, stripping it of its driving rhythm. The experiment works, though, resulting in a different yet emotionally effective performance.
McDonald gives us "Bill," making it seem remarkably fresh eighty-three years after Kern sat down in late 1917 and wrote the melody; she also does a glorious job on Bernstein and Sondheim's "Somewhere." This last segues into Adam Guettel's haunting "How Glory Goes" from Floyd Collins, which gives this collection its title. (Guettel, with two selections, is the only composer other than Arlen with multiple entries.) As in his finest songs, Guettel doesn't merely build to an emotional peak; he pauses on the peaks, then unexpectedly builds onward. "How Glory Goes" is given a sensitive and properly unsettling orchestration by Jonathan Tunick. Guettel and Tunick, now there's an intriguing combination.
Most impressive of the other "new" songs is a tender and unconventional lullaby, called "I Won't Mind," by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines (from The Other Franklin, a presumably unproduced musical). Who knew that Blumenkrantz -- the comic character actor best known for playing Bud Frump in the revival of How to Succeed -- was a composer? Other contemporary writers are Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with what I consider their loveliest song to date, "Come Down from the Tree" (cut from Once on This Island); Steve Marzullo; and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley.
And let's say a word for the album producer, Tommy Krasker. It's one thing to produce a cast album; there, at least, you start with a complete score, full orchestrations, and a rehearsed cast. How Glory Goes began from scratch, just McDonald, conductor Eric Stern, and Krasker sitting around a piano trying to figure out what she should sing. Krasker, who has produced complicated cast albums like Titanic and Floyd Collins, also did McDonald's two solo discs, Dawn Upshaw's I Wish It So and Vernon Duke, and Guettel's Myths and Hymns. Which is to say that here is someone with an immense knowledge of, and nurturing feel for, adventurous musical theatre.
These attributes are shared by Eric Stern, who conducted the McDonald and Upshaw albums; and Ted Sperling, who conducted the Guettel shows, played the onstage orchestra leader in Titanic, and conducts five tracks (mostly "new" songs) and orchestrated two on How Glory Goes. This album is especially well orchestrated, with nine charts coming from either Bruce Coughlin or Larry Hochman.
Ms. McDonald is an exceptional performer who would sound good, presumably, no matter what; but on her solo albums she has wisely surrounded herself with strong music people. It doesn't hurt to have Adam Guettel in your corner, either, contributing six songs to the two discs. But the credit goes, mostly, to Audra.
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