Audra McDonald How Glory Goes (Nonesuch 79580) What a...


February 24, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Audra McDonald

How Glory Goes (Nonesuch 79580)

What a pathetic thing the musical theater has become.

It isn't just that the shows themselves are lacking, replacing the luxuriant melodies of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers with the second-hand hooks of Andrew Lloyd Webber; the singers, too, seem scaled down, relying on amplification and inflection to achieve what real vocal power and tone used to accomplish.

Thank God for Audra McDonald.

Not since Barbara Cook and Barbra Streisand has there been a singer who so completely conveys what musical theater is about. McDonald has it all -- power, tone, a singer's finesse, and an actor's instincts.

Even better, she uses it all to excellent effect on "How Glory Goes." Regardless of whether we know the show, she manages to put us into the scene, allowing the drama implicit in each song to play out. Her rendition of "Bill" may well be the finest on record, so completely does she incarnate the lyric's sense of being utterly in love with a completely unremarkable man.

Funny thing is, there's nothing particularly "stagy" about McDonald's renditions. She never downplays the melody to make the lyric seem more like speech, and doesn't see rubato -- the practice of pushing ahead or lagging behind the beat -- as a way of getting around the artificiality of meter. To the contrary, she insists on staying true to the music, so much so that there are moments in which this might be mistaken for an art-song recital.

But McDonald's faith in and fidelity to these songs is precisely what makes her performances so convincing. Where most stage-bound Marias tend to get lost in the dramatic sweep of "Somewhere" (from "West Side Story"), McDonald remains in control, her voice arching easily across lyrics like, "There's a place for us..." Because she's not showing off, our focus shifts from the power of her voice to the magic of the words, and suddenly, the sanctuary Maria hopes to conjure is there in front of us.

McDonald is seldom a showy singer, and her most effective tools tend to be the details of a performance. Her "I Won't Mind," for example, is a masterful manipulation of nuance and color, using the subtlest changes in vocal tone to let us hear the envy and jealously that throbs beneath the affection this woman feels for another woman's baby. It's totally underplayed, and yet devastating in its impact.

That's not to say McDonald doesn't occasionally indulge in the pleasures of a good tune. Her rendition of "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" is big and brassy, making the most of the melody while -- as always -- honoring the weight of the words, and she clearly warms to the torch-song element of "The Man That Got Away."

It helps that the orchestral accompaniment (conducted, for the most part, by Eric Stern) is light and supple, bringing almost a chamber-music grace to the songs. But it's beauty of McDonald's voice -- and the intelligence with which she wields it -- that makes "How Glory Goes" such a glorious recording. You owe it to yourself to hear this album.

(****)Four stars


Pat Metheny

Trio 99-00 (Warner Bros. 47632)

Over the years, guitarist Pat Metheny has worked in a wide variety of styles, from cool, low-key fusion to raucous, harmonically adventurous free jazz, to bright, Latin-tinged world music. With "Trio 99-00," he moves in the direction of bebop. It isn't Wes Montgomery territory, exactly, but both his sense of line and the lean, swinging support he gets from bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart is far more straight-ahead than what he usually records. It works well, too, as Metheny adroitly handles the angular harmonies of the Wayne Shorter tune "Capricorn," and brings new insight to the John Coltrane standard "Giant Steps." Still, the most interesting moments come when Metheny steps away from the expected, as on the quiet, acoustic-guitar tune "Just Like the Day."

(***)Three stars


William Orbit

Pieces in a Modern Style (Maverick 47596)

Using synthesizers to rethink classical compositions is nothing new. In the late '60s, Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos did it with "Switched on Bach," and so did Isao Tomita in the '70s with "Snowflakes Are Dancing." But William Orbit -- best known as Madonna's producer du jour -- doesn't just synthesize the classics on "Pieces in a Modern Style"; he turns them into ambient dance music. Give him credit for having broad tastes, as the selections range from baroque masters Handel and Vivaldi to modernists like Cage and Gorecki. But apart from two dance-mix versions of the Barber "Adagio for Strings," Orbit's monochromatic, drone-oriented treatments make the music seem utterly soporific. Do we really need such a high-concept equivalent to Muzak?

(*) One star


Snow Day

Music from the Motion Picture (Geffen 0694905982)

What killed the big teen-idol boom of the late '50s and early '60s wasn't that American kids grew tired of playing beach-blanket bingo; it was that the market was bloated by talentless, manufactured teen-idol acts. Well, if you ever had any doubts about whether history repeats, grab a copy of the soundtrack to "Snow Day." From Hoku's insufferable Britney Spears-meets-Christina Aguilera number, "Another Dumb Blonde," to the limp hip-hop pop of LFO's "The Reason Why," you can almost hear the current teen boom buckling under its own weight. Fortunately, the album isn't all bad-imitation Backstreet Boys, as Smash Mouth, Sixpence None the Richer and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones try nobly to resuscitate '80s new wave. On the whole, however, all "Snow Day" offers is slush.

(**) Two stars

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