Lara Downes‘s pop-up concert series is described as “at the forward edges of classical music.” That’s not a bad description of the pianist’s new solo piano album America Again. Not because these arrangements of American popular, classical, and new works are edgy or musically groundbreaking – they aren’t – but because they probe the limits of what we call classical music in a way that’s as enlightening as it is charming.
In performances of consummate artistry, Downes gives us concise but feeling interpretations of songs and short pieces by many of America’s greatest composers. The sources come from the mingled worlds of popular music, jazz, and what we call “modern classical” music but is better thought of as artistically sophisticated concert music that can also, as in these instances, have popular appeal.
With warm tones, subtle rubatos, and finely calibrated harmonic development, Downes’s arrangements convey many colors of American musical traditions and creativity: the humble folksiness of “Shenandoah,” the tongue-in-cheek modernism of Morton Gould’s “American Caprice,” the soulful spiritedness of Amy Beach’s Native American-inspired “From Blackbird Hills.” Downes also dives deep into the spirituality of “Deep River,” emerging with a thrilling display of pianism.
The jazzy lyricism of Dan Visconti’s “Nocturne from Lonesome Roads,” one of the album’s three world-premiere recordings, brings Bill Evans to mind. Ernest Bloch’s roiling “At Sea” washes up on the shores of Nina Simone’s classic arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” which Downes renders with exquisite finesse.
Downes captures the essences of small works by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland as sensitively as she does songs and pieces by Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. Her relaxing approach to a Scott Joplin rag is refreshing, her take on Art Tatum’s sprightly arrangement of “Blues Skies” cool and silky.
Female artists are represented by Angélica Negrón’s yearning “Sueno Recurrente” and Florence Price’s spiritual-inspired, almost Chopin-esque “Fantasie Negre” from 1929, as well as by Beach and Simone.
When Price, the first African-American woman recognized as a symphonic composer, first enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in 1901, she “pretended to be Mexican to avoid the stigma people had towards African Americans at the time,” according to Wikipedia. The story reminded me of Nina Simone’s early ambition to be a concert pianist, an aim foiled at least in part by racism. It’s fitting that this hope-tinged album, coming out in a political season rocked by nativist outcry, nods towards these African-American women who achieved great artistic heights in spite of daunting barriers.
The striking Price piece serves as the emotional climax of the album, which closes with “Over the Rainbow.” In arranging and playing that sentimental Harold Arlen favorite Downes shows, as she does throughout the album, her assured power to express a distinctive voice while paying homage to the great composers who seem to give her her artistic raison d’être.