By Philippa Kiraly
Young American musician Lara Downes opened UW’s President’s Piano Series Wednesday night with an enlightening program of 20th century American music. All the composers but one are well known: Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, plus Florence Price, and all were born close together around the turn of the century, with Barber the youngest, born 1910, and Price the oldest, born 1888.
Price was a rarity at that time, a recognized woman composer with a large body of works under her belt, and even rarer, a black woman composer. She attended the New England Conservatory of Music, became head of the music department at Clark University and won first prize in the Wanamaker Competition and a performance of her first symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
We know little of her work now, but the substantial “Fantasie Negre” Downes performed is almost Lisztian in its romanticism and format. Nevertheless it has an individual voice and is unmistakably American, built around a spiritual,” Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” In the middle there are some left-hand passages which are harmonically static, and one section which verges perilously close to salon music, but in general it’s a worthwhile piece which leaves the listener curious to hear more of her work. She wrote several symphonies, a couple each of piano concertos and violin concertos, and many songs.
Downes played it with appropriate elan, the only romantic piece on the program, and a contrast to the sparer works of Price’s younger colleagues. Downes’ juxtaposition of Harris, Barber and Copland made for fascinating comparisons between them and their lasting legacy. Harris’s American Ballads is the most atonal and complex, requiring the most from the listener. Each of the five pieces is based on a folk song, with the last a haunting sense of the ocean and its dangers in “Cod Liver Ile” from the fishermen of Newfoundland. One could almost hear a bell tolling under the sea.
Barber’s four colorful “Excursions” includes hints of boogie-woogy and blues, a lullaby and a hoedown, very different from Harris’s take on American life. Downes executed both with sensitivity and a relaxed gusto.
The open harmonies of Copland are another contrast, in his view of a typical aspect of this country, Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo.” Downes brought out the music’s vitality and inherent danceableness, even the sense of horses pawing the dust.
Her clever programming built a musical portrait of this country at the beginning of the 20th century which became clearer with every work she played.
She continued with Copland’s Four Piano Blues, where I felt she did not bring out the bluesy sense enough, and in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” she frankly didn’t get it. Where the rest of the program was interesting and well played (with the before-mentioned caveat), “Rhapsody” was a disappointment.
This is a work which is larger than life and needs to be played that way. It was not muscular enough in Downes’ interpretation. It needed to be more expansive, more in-your-face, more forceful. She didn’t seem to have internalized the work, particularly its blues feel, and it lacked coherence. Nor did she seem to be totally in control of it technically, all the more surprising as she appeared otherwise to be an excellent pianist.
Apart from this, it was still a worthwhile concert, for the illuminating program.