Song of the Day: “My Man’s Gone Now”

Title: My Man’s Gone Now

Artist: George and Ira Gershwin

Musical: Porgy and Bess

Performers: Leontyne Price; Audra McDonald; Nina Simone

There are two competing stories that relate how I first heard “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy and Bess” by George and Ira Gershwin.

The first, more unlikely version is that I was looking up Leontyne Price’s performance of Guiseppe Verdi’s “Messa de Requiem” (which I will write about another time), and stumbled across this incredible tour de force performance.

That’s the story I usually tell. And, I mean, who wouldn’t? It shows Ms. Price in her prime, the creaminess of her voice belying the extraordinary heft and magnificent power she possessed. It’s a performance that could only be delivered by a Strauss, Verdi or Wagnerian soprano – and, at the risk of being traditionalist, by a black one at that.

The second story replaces Leontyne Price with Audra McDonald. I’ve been in love with Ms. McDonald since I can remember, and I believe I would have run across her version while looking for her cover of John Mayer’s “My Stupid Mouth.” (Or maybe it was Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon.”) Regardless, here she is, with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, flexing her classical muscles:

Audra’s spent more time as a musical theater goddess at this point (five Tonys, but who’s counting?), so something like this just serves as reminder that, yes, she did train at Julliard, and yes, she can interpret an operatic character with more nuance and panache than most opera singers today.

Either one works for me. Just listen to the piece. Gorgeous and bombastic, chromatic to the point of desperation. A somewhat irregular rhythm. The strange, captivating entwining of classical demands (range, breath control, vocal production, sheer power) with the vernacular (Tellin’ me I’se old now, since I lose mah man).

Of course, the piece was also translated by women who took a less classical, more blues-and-jazz influenced interpretation. Take, for example, Nina Simone and her piano, achieving a mournfulness less bombastic and more introspective than Ms. McDonald or Ms. Price:

Nina’s version maintains that raw, chromatic effect, but adds some instability. You never know where you sit with her version. Here, the mournful “aaaahs” are less about wailing to let the world know, and more plaintive weeping over his grave, alone.

Just in case you were wondering what instrumentation, key changes and other artistic decisions can accomplish, just pay attention to transformation of this song from the Gershwin’s original interpretation to Nina’s soulful remix.

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