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.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment

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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa