Tuesday, January 2, 2007

New Year's Eve with Audra

I did indeed watch Audra on New Year's Eve, or at least most of it. The set list didn't include many surprises - I saw her at Carnegie Hall in April, and watched her "American Songbook" concert on PBS more recently, and she did a number of the same songs from those two performances, as well as a few from albums past. But I liked the conceit of "Songs from the Movies," and I am hoping that maybe her next album will feature some of the songs she's been performing onstage recently. She does a beautiful job with the seldom-heard movie version of "The Glamorous Life," and her pairing of "It Might as Well Be Spring" and "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here" is inspired and thrilling. You can't go wrong with "Edelweiss," either. I wasn't crazy about the overwrought orchestral setting of "Moon River," which worked against the simplicity that makes that song charming. But I do like her minimalist arrangement of "The Man that Got Away."

While we're complaining, other things that bothered me about the telecast: first, the stage was miked in such a way that the live audience was more or less inaudible, which sounds like a good thing, but isn't really. Audra's between-songs banter seemed to be bombing, because you couldn't hear so much as a chuckle from the audience, and when she invited folks to sing along (on the chorus of "I Could Have Danced All Night," for example), it sounded like they were refusing to participate. It made me realize how important the energy of an audience is in a live performance -- if you don't get any sense of how the people in the room are experiencing and responding to the music, you might as well be watching a rehearsal. And the second thing that bothered me was the flautist seated just behind Audra, who was wearing a shiny, sequined green dress. Unflattering and most distracting, ma'am - I don't care if it is New Year's Eve, don't you have a black gown for occasions such as this?

The best part of the "movie songs" conceit: no Adam Guettel songs! I wish I could say the same for Audra's latest album, Build a Bridge, which is definitely my least favorite of the four she's released. Even Way Back to Paradise gets pulled out and played occasionally, in spite of its wildly uneven song selection (I find myself skipping every other track), but Build a Bridge just bores me. Oh, it's pleasant enough, and there are a couple of tracks I may transfer to iTunes so I can hear them once in a while without having to pull out the CD - the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach opener, "God Give Me Strength," for example, or Jane Kelly Williams's "Wonderful You." But when you're used to hearing Audra apply her phenomenal talent to theatre songs - or to the interpretation-friendly standards of the 1930s and 40s - it's simply not satisfying to hear her singing repetitive pop. There are a couple of theatre songs here - I like "Cradle and All" much better now that I've heard Audra sing it (previously I had only encountered it on composer Jessica Molaskey's own album Make Believe). And, of course, with the usual Guettel quota to be met, she includes a song from The Light in the Piazza - but why couldn't she have done one of Clara's songs? In performance, "Dividing Day" is a snooze of a number, no matter what anyone says. But it has a pretty tune and a nice, driving rhythm, and on its own it might have stood up better - except, for some reason, the Sperling orchestration from the stage show is replaced by a meandering piano accompaniment here, which makes it sound like just another shapeless Guettel tune.

If you watched the concert and enjoyed it, I recommend Audra's third and best album, Happy Songs. And if you disagree with my take, do let me know!

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