Lara Downes & Friends: For Lenny (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano; Kevin "I.O." Olusola; Javier Morales-Martinez; Rhiannon Giddens; Thomas Hampson. Naxos Sony 84284011251.

The last time I reviewed an album from American pianist Lara Downes, it was America Again, her tribute to some of the American music and musicians that inspired her. Now, with For Lenny she pays tribute to another person who inspired her, Leonard Bernstein. She's accompanied along the way in several of the selections by fellow musicians Kevin "I.O." Olusola; Javier Morales-Martinez; Rhiannon Giddens; and Thomas Hampson. The musical tracks, either composed by or written about and for Mr. Bernstein, make for a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening look at one of America's foremost musical talents.

Most folks today probably know American conductor, composer, author, lecturer, and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) from his many recordings as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and from his music for West Side Story. But after his tenure with the NY Phil ended, he went on to conduct and make many more records with the Vienna Philharmonic, among other ensembles; and many people recognize him for his work on Candide, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and On the Waterfront, plus symphonies, a mass, and other works. Or TV viewers might still recognize him for his long television series of musical lectures. Whatever, his legacy is broad enough to live on for a very long time.

Ms. Downes gives us a pleasant overview of Bernstein's contributions to our cultural heritage, and she and her colleagues do so using various unique styles and approaches, so the album isn't just another collection of greatest hits. There are twenty-eight tracks in all, covering a wide range of the composer's music. Here's a run-down on the contents:

  1. Something's Coming
  2. Anniversary for Lenny (John Corgliano)
  3. Anniversaire for Lenny (Stephen Schwartz)
  4. Romance for Lenny (Eleonor Sanderesky)
  5. Iconoclasm/for Lenny (Michael Abels)
  6. Fancy Free: Big Stuff
  7. Anniversary for Johnny Mehegan
  8. Anniversary for Aaron Copland
  9. Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim
10. I Remember (Stephen Sondheim)
11. Cool
12. The Story of My Life
13. Greeting
14. Innocent Psalm for the Bernstein Baby (Marc Blitzstein)
15. Anniversary for My Daughter, Nina
16. Anniversary for Felicia, on Our 28th
17. So Pretty
18. Anniversary in Memoriam (Daron Hagen)
19. Anniversary for Lukas Foss
20. For Lenny: Variation on New York, New York (Lucas Foss)
21. What Shall We Remember? (Ricky Ian Gordon)
22. A Simple Song
23. Exuberance for Lenny (Shulamit Ran)
24. Anniversary for Craig Urquhart
25. Remembering Lenny (Craig Urquhart)
26. Goodbye Chorale for Lenny (Theo Bleckmann)
27. Youth, Day, Old Age & Night (Ned Rorem)
28. Some Other Time

Lara Downes
I have to admit after listening straight through all twenty-eight selections that I preferred the ones written by Bernstein himself more than I liked the ones written about or for him. Nevertheless, all the songs are classy, thanks not only to their being timeless classics but because Ms. Downes makes them sound new again. Her sensitive, nuanced playing brings out the best in everything, and even the familiar material from West Side Story seems fresh and innovative. Of course, it may help if you enjoy modern jazz and blues because these are prevalent styles among many of the performances.

As Ms. Downes proved on previous albums of American music, she has a manner all her own while at the same time conveying a sincere interpretation of a composer's intent. Same here, with Bernstein sounding like Bernstein, all the while sounding like Downes. It's a unique sleight of hand and an appealing one. She makes the music the composer's and her own at the same time. Good examples are "The Story of My Life" and "Some Other Time" (perhaps not coincidentally both arranged by Jed Distler), delicate, haunting pieces made all the more compelling by Ms. Downes's sweet, gentle, elegant, passionate pianism. Her poignant artistry is first-rate, and she makes an exemplary communicator of all things Bernstein and all things American.

Producer Adam Abeshouse recorded "Something's Coming" and "Cool" at the Colburn School, Los Angeles, CA; "A Simple Song" at Question de Son Studio, Paris; and most other tracks at Pelham, NY; and Ian Schreier recorded "So Pretty" at Manifold Recording, Pittsboro, NC. They made all the recordings between May and October 2017.

Depending on the venue, the sound is big and open and sometimes overly reverberant. The dynamics are wide, and impact is strong. Ultimate transparency seems a bit sacrificed on some tracks, though, for the sake of ambient bloom, while on other selections, mainly the ones recorded in NY, things appear clearer, better focused, and better detailed.

JJP

To listen to an excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa