Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today. Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established. She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy. Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.
The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes. Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.
This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.
Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.
My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.
This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives. Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree. This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.
In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater. This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends. Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording. Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.
This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate. And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults. From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas. Generations have been forever changed by him.
The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically. She clearly has a real feel for this music. This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows. It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying. The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.
This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?” Brava! And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.