Lara Downes: Holes in the Sky (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano, and friends. Sony/Tritone Music Portrait 19075920792.

"I want real things--live people to take hold of--to see--and talk to--music that makes holes in the sky--I want to love as hard as I can." --Georga O'Keefe

It's always a pleasure to welcome another album from American pianist Lara Downes. Like her previous discs, her new album, "Holes in the Sky," involves a central theme, this time music by contemporary women artists. And she's assisted in her efforts by an assortment of popular and talented female musicians, including singer/songwriter Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, singer/instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, jazz singer/songwriter Magos Herrera, classical and folk musician Leyla McCalla, singer/songwriter/actress Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, and the urban youth vocal ensemble Girls of Musicality.

Here's a rundown on the selections:
  1. "Memory Mist" (1949 by Florence Price)
  2. "Albatross," with Judy Collins (1967 by Judy Collins)
  3. "A Tide of Living Water" (2010 by Clarice Assad)
  4. "Dream Variation," with Rhiannon Giddens (1959 by Margaret Bonds/Langston Hughes)
  5. "Ellis Island," with Simone Dinnerstein (1981 by Meredith Monk)
  6. "Don't Explain," with Leyla McCalla (1944 by Billie holiday)
  7. "Willow Weep for Me" (1932 by Ann Ronell)
  8. "Venus Projection" (1990 by Paula Kimper)
  9. "Morning on the Limpopo; Matlou Women" (2005 by Paola Prestini)
10. "Farther from the Heart," with Hila Plitmann (2016 by Eve Beglarian/Jane Bowles)
11. "Favorite Colour" (1965 by Joni Mitchell)
12. "Notes of Gratitude" (2017 by Jennifer Higdon)
13. "Arrorro Mi Nina," with Magos Herrera (traditional, arr. by Lara Downes)
14. "Music Pink and Blue" (2018 by Elena Ruehr)
15. "Idyll" (1946 by Hazel Scott)
16. "Blue Piece," with Rachel Barton Pine (2010 by Libby Larsen)
17. "Bloom" (2018 by Marika Takeuchi)
18. "Just for a Thrill," with Alicia Hall Moran (1936 by Lil Hardin Armstrong)
19. "Aghavni (Doves)" (2009 by Mary Kouyoumdjian)
20. "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" (2014 by Georgia Scitt)
21. "Rainbow" (by Abbey Lincoln/Melba Liston)
22. "All the Pretty Little Horses," with Ifetayo Ali-Landing & The Girls of Musicality (traditional, arr. by Lara Downes)

Lara Downes
Ms. Downes, as always, shows extreme care in nuance and suggestion, with playing that is at once tender yet strong and moving. The music itself is touching, pensive, contemplative, and inspiring by turns and easily bears repeat listening. It's nice to hear Ms. Collins sounding the same as ever, too, her voice perhaps a touch huskier but no less distinctive and expressive. The other soloists are equally impressive and the whole affair is lovely, with perhaps Jennifer Higdon's work standing out the most for its serious intent and accessible feel. What's more, the album totals sixty-seven minutes of material, far more than a typical popular album might. But, then, this isn't typical popular material, either. Nor is it a "woman's" album, even though the composers are women. It is an album for all seasons, all tastes, all people, all ages, and certainly all genders.

Producers Adam Abeshouse and Alan Silverman and engineers Adam Abeshouse,  Alan Silverman, Ian Schreier, and Bill Maylone recorded the music at various locations, including Yamaha Artist Services, NYC; Power Station Studios, NYC; Music Shed Studios, New Orleans, LA; Manifold Recording, Pittsboro, NC; and WFMT Levin Performance Studio, Chicago, IL, from May to September 2018.

As we should expect, there is some variation in sound reproduction depending on the particular studio used. Most of the sound, though, is typical of pop studio productions: close, detailed, well spread. Other selections, like the songs with Judy Collins and Leyla McCalla and the piece with Rachel Barton Pine sound a bit more natural, with a tad more air around the soloists. Suffice to say, all of it sounds fine and none of it will disappoint.

Addendum: Shortly after I finished this review, my wife heard the album and immediately took proprietary possession of it. It now resides among the music collection in her car. Well, at least I know where to find it the next time I want to listen.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa