Lara Downes: America Again (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano. Sono Luminus DSL-92207.

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"
Traditional: "Shenandoah"
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"

Lara Downes
While I shall not try to cover everything, I will tell you about a few of the tracks I liked best. The opening number, Morton Gould's "American Caprice," for example, sets the tone with its sweet, jazzy playfulness, yet Ms. Downes always keeps it within the bounds of serious music. Lou Harrison's little waltzes are wistful, lilting, romantic, nostalgic, and endlessly charming. We all know the traditional American tune "Shenandoah," and Ms. Downes brings to it an added picturesqueness, a truly impressionistic approach.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa