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RECITAL REVIEW

Lara Downes Playing Sheng's Variation Fugato Feb. 26 (Joan Louie Photo)

13 COMPOSERS CHASE BACH'S GOLDBERG ARIA AT LARA DOWNES' NEWMAN HALL RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 26, 2012

A popular way to reach a wide classical audience is to find a musical niche, playing unfamiliar works with an uncommon passion. Lara Downes has been an ingratiating niche pianist for years, presenting programs of Roy Harris, William Balcom and Aaron Jay Kernis, and lately a unique recital built around Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Before a Newman Auditorium audience Feb. 26 Ms. Downes brought her “13 Ways of Looking at Goldberg” program in the fifth recital of the Concerts Grand season.

The set of 13 “re-imaginings” of the Goldberg (BWV 988) comes from 2004 and enlists 13 contemporary composers contributing works of fewer than four minutes related to the famous 32-measure aria. The composers are either well known names (Balcom, Higdon, Sheng, Del Tredici, Foss, Hersch, Gothóni) or obscure, but each sheds light on Bach’s melodic genius and along the way exemplifies manifold moods. The pianist’s verbal descriptions were pithy and informative.

Ms. Downes read from an I Pad electronic score throughout, each page actuated by a foot switch next to the piano’s shift pedal, but mostly she played scant attention to the notes. Her playing of the opening a closing Bach aria was brisk, more in the style of the 1955 Gould recording than the newly lauded Simone Dinnerstein reading. Especially notable in the unfolding panoply of contemporary renditions were Fred Lerdahl’s Chasing Goldberg and C. Curtis-Smith’s Rube Goldberg Variation. Here Ms. Downes played with a facile technique and a chaste tone, her pedaling and cross-hand execution deft. None of the works require an orchestral sound and the artist was content to underscore a natural progression of the 13, the actual order selected by Ms. Downes and recently recorded. She never seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere and the lovely Melancholy Minuet of Fred Hersch was performed with a nostalgic glow.

After prolonged applause Ms. Downes offered a rare gem from the nonagenarian Dave Brubeck, a five-minute improvisatory piece that moved irresistibly through many keys and moods, the harmonies piquant. The juxtaposition of the encore with the 13 composers and the always contemporary Bach was adroit and convincing.

Ms. Downes substituted for the originally announced program of pianist Evgeni Mikhailov, who was unable to obtain a visa in Moscow.

The reviewer is the producer of the Concerts Grand series.