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River Drowning

New York
04/21/2017 -  
“I’ve Known Rivers”:
Ned Rorem: Barcarolle No. 2
Samuel Coleridge Taylor: Deep River
Margaret Bonds: Troubled Water
Sarah Kirkland Snider: The Currents
Traditional: Shenandoah
Henry Mancini: Moon River
Arthur Hamilton: Cry Me A River
Jerome Kern: Old Man River
Frederic Rzewski: Down by the Riverside
Frédéric Chopin: Barcarolle, Opus 60

Lara Downes (Pianist)

L. Downes (© Samuel T. Dog)

One doesn’t condemn an artist for momentarily messing up Bach or Scriabin. But when a pianist takes a simple masterpiece like Henry Mancini’s Moon River or a masterly masterpiece like Jerome Kern’s Ol’ Man River and transforms it into dismal cocktail music...well, something is wrong.

One didn’t expect that from the program notes for Lara Downes. She has studied with Rudolf Buchbinder and Hans Graf, has performed throughout Europe (where the San Francisco-born artist was raised), has worked with jazz performers, orchestras, and made solo recordings. And today she is Artist-in-Residence at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, at the University of California, as well as founder of several programs promoting the arts.

Yet ignoring that exception curriculum vitae, I found myself less than impressed with her program at BargeMusic. No, that is wrong. Her program based on music about rivers was splendid–and perfectly appropriate for BargeMusic, a concert hall, yes, resting on the East River. She looked truly artistic, even if her gown resonated Hari Krishna colors. The composers were as eclectic as possible, including Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Frederic Rzewski, Ned Rorem and Chopin. And indeed, when playing the notes as written, Ms. Downes was satisfactory enough. (More later)

But the arrangements she made of classic melodies was, for lack of a better word, obese. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his two few years on his British soil, had arranged 24 Negro Melodies, with elegance, charm and allowances for any singer. Ms. Downes drowned this river in flurries of salon-type trippling scales, the melody hidden amid clusters of tonics and dominants.

Moon River simply avoided Mancini’s own harmonies. That so exquisite song of longing and remembrance was again soaked in notes and pablum-harmonies. (Ms. Downes is a jazz practitioner, but nothing here approached anything of jazz.) Ditto for Cry Me A River (Julie London might have sued). Shenandoah has been arranged a thousand times, but never until Friday evening have I heard this truly deep traditional song hidden in the underbrush.

Ms. Downes was not a bad pianist in numbers where she didn’t simulate a Liberace-style over-embellishment. The opening Rorem Barcarolle was new to me, but she never departed from its lyrical simplicity. Songs by two composers unknown to this listener, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Margaret Bonds, were quite pleasant.

Which wasn’t true for Frederic Rzewski’s Down by the Riverside. When this was played by Stephen Gosling in BargeMusic, the extreme difficulties were mere tools for a music that sang out, that employed Rzewski’s sheer Americana in a tapestry of bouncing, earthy solidity. Ms. Downes impressed the audience by getting through those Augean challenges. Rather than applause, one thought of offering a E for Effort though hardly for exhilaration.

As for the Chopin Barcarolle, we had tones without breath, the diversity of moods pounded down to single feeling.

For an encore, Ms. Downes actually displayed an artistry lost during the short recital itself. One of Leonard Bernstein’s bagatelles, an ephemera which glowed like a jewel. Ms. Downes played it the way it was written, flowing but with Bernstein’s genius for being a wee bit off-kilter. After this, I departed from the Barge, walked up to Walt Whitman’s old office building, and and cleansed myself by returning and gazing at the fog-covered East River. Not one of the most romantic waterways in the world, but a natural object, needing neither embellishment nor filigree.

Harry Rolnick



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