To say that Lara Downes plays the piano is the same as saying Claude Monet painted landscapes. The French impressionist artist Monet's use of color and light created pictures not only of rare beauty but of rare insight. In a similar fashion, American pianist Lara Downes creates poetic musical sketches of times, places, and people that transcend mere notes and draw us into a world of nuanced sounds and feelings. She forces us to see and hear old tunes in a new light.
On her current album, "America Again," Ms. Downes takes her inspiration from a poem by the American poet Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again." Written in the depths of the Great Depression, the poem criticizes an American Dream never realized by a good number of its citizens and then conveys hope that the Dream may eventually come true for everybody. As Ms. Downes writes, "...we are living again in troubled times. The rifts and rivalries that divide us as a nation seem to run deeper than ever. But still, we dreamers keep dreaming our dream."
So, "America Again" is an album of hope, an uplifting desire that we will all come together soon enough and shoulder our mutual responsibility to help one another. Like the Hughes poem, the album is a tribute to the men and women of America who have worked so hard over the years to help America achieve its potential, its Dream.
Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work exhibits an exceptionally poetic and dramatic presence, easily sustained in this new album. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four. Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Ms. Downes continues to perform on the world's leading stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center. She impresses one with her imagination, lyricism, and straightforward, unadorned virtuosity.
Most classical-music listeners will recognize many if not all of the names on Ms. Downes's program. The album contains twenty-one tracks and involves over sixty-six minutes of music. Here is a list of the selections:
Morton Gould: "American Caprice"
Lou Harrison: "Waltz in C," "Hesitation Waltz," and "Waltz in A"
Amy Beach: "From Blackbird Hills"
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: "Deep River"
Dan Visconti: "Nocturne" from "Lonesome Roads"
Ernest Bloch: "At Sea"
George Gershwin: "I Loves You, Porgy"
Angelica Negron: "Sueno Recurrente"
Leonard Bernstein: "Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim"
David Sanford: "Promise"
Howard Hanson: "Slumber Song"
Scott Joplin: "Gladiolus Rag"
Irving Berlin: "Blue Skies"
Florence Price: "Fantasie Negre"
Aaron Copland: "Sentimental Melody"
Duke Ellington: "Melancholia"
Roy Harris: "Li'l Boy Named David"
Harold Arlen: "Over the Rainbow"
Under Lara Downes's sure-handed guidance, each song takes on its own character, no matter how familiar the material. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's take on spirituals, "Deep River," is poignant and touching; Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" (in an arrangement by Nina Simone) never sounded more heartfelt; Howard Hanson's waltz-lullaby "Slumber Time" sounds appropriately dreamy but never overtly sentimental; Joplin's "Gladiolus Rag" doesn't jump off the tracks with its early jazz-time verve but remains firmly rooted in the American spirit of aspiration, ambition, and accomplishment. And so it goes, every selection begging one to listen to it again and again. It's a quite magical album.
Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in March 2016. For the technical minded, they made it with Merging Technologies Horus, mastered with Merging Technologies Hapi, and recorded in DXD at 24 bit, 352.8kHZ in Auro-3D 9.1 Immersive Audio using Legacy Audio Speakers. No, I haven't any idea what all that means, either, but the result is extra rich, remarkably clean, and very realistic sound.
Like all of the discs I've reviewed from Sono Luminus, this one sounds excellent. The piano is almost literally in the room with us, ringing out clearly yet opulently, with just the right amount of ambient hall resonance to enrich its nature. Insofar as audiophile piano music goes, it's a treasure.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: