Monday, February 12, 2018

Downes’ Bernstein Tribute Finds the Sweet Spot

Given the amount of coverage the event has received, it is hard to imagine that anyone reading this site (or probably just about any other source) is not aware that this coming August 25 will mark the centennial of the birth of composer (not to mention conductor, pianist, author, and lecturer … have I omitted any appropriate nouns?) Leonard Bernstein. The San Francisco Symphony and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas have been honoring this forthcoming event with an extended series of performance offerings in Davies Symphony Hall, the last of which will take place towards the end of this month. There have also been an abundance of new and reissued recordings to mark the occasion.

In the midst of all of this abundance, pianist Lara Downes seems to have homed in on the sweet spot for giving this hard-working musician with a larger-than-life reputation a tribute recording that manages to be sincere without going over the top with adulation. The album is a joint release of Sony Classics and Naxos entitled simply for lenny; and the contributing performers are credited as “Lara Downes & friends.” Downes is not shy when it comes to expressing the impact that Bernstein has had on her life and work, an impact that continues to resonate more than a quarter-century after his death on October 14, 1990; and this new album stands as a sincere and well-expressed acknowledgement of that impact.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Bernstein also had detractors; and it would not make sense to try to “do the math” to determine who came out on top when everything is subjected to some imaginary balance scale. Rather, it would be fair to say that Downes has compiled an album of music that she likes to play; and her approach to playing seems to be directed towards providing the listener with grounds for liking it too. Over the course of 28 tracks, she has compiled a selection that balances Bernstein’s music with impressions of the man by others, who have expressed those impressions through their own original compositions.

Bernstein himself compiled four collections of “anniversary” pieces written for friends and colleagues. These were published in 1944, 1948, 1952, and 1988, respectively, making for a total of 29 vignettes in music (not counting “My Twelve Tone Melody,” a song written, presumably with tongue in cheek, to honor the 100th birthday of Irving Berlin). for lenny includes “response pieces” by only two of the honorees, Stephen Sondheim and Lukas Foss. (Downes had previously recorded the from-to relationship between Bernstein and Foss on her some other time duo album with cellist Zuill Bailey. However, all of the tracks on this new album are “fresh,” having been recorded between May and October of last year.)

One might think that 28 tracks makes for a lot of music. However, all the tracks are brief almost unto an extreme. (Two of them are less than a minute.) In addition, those wishing to listen beginning-to-end in a single sitting will appreciate the occasional appearance of guest artists. These include Kevin “K.O.” Olusola providing both body music and vocalization for the opening track of “Something’s Coming” (from West Side Story), Javier Morales Martinez’ clarinet work for “Cool” (also from West Side Story), Rhiannon Giddens’ poignant account of the politically-charged “So Pretty,” and Thomas Hampson going straight to the heart of “A Simple Song” (the opening “Hymn and Psalm” from Mass).

Hampson’s track ushers in what amounts to the coda of the album, which is distinguished for its plainspoken quietude. Since the beginning of this season, there have been any number of flashy events honoring Bernstein; and I have no doubt that there will be plenty more before the centennial date arrives. Nevertheless, since Bernstein himself had been accused of indulging in excess so many times, I have to confess that there is much to be said for simplicity and quietude honoring his memory. Downes’ recording may well have qualities that will endure long after the celebratory shouts of “Bravo!” have evaporated into the ether.

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