December 29, 2016
History books calling America a nation and politicians claiming to “make it great” have it wrong: America is not an actual place—and it can’t ever lose its greatness.
Because America is a dreamland where people regardless of race or social status are honored and thrive in united harmony. It’s an imaginary country where the syncopations of different cultures and the rhythms of human industry and invention underpin an orchestra expressing the infinite colors and tones of the universe.
If that’s too grand, then America is the poignant resonance of a solo singer in a church or a hillbilly humming a centuries-old tune while walking home. And sometimes, America is the purity of a piano, played by a musician who gathers multiple racial, musical, philosophical, ethnic, historic, and faith influences and displays the many strands of her lineage in a soundtrack.
Pianist Lara Downes’ newest CD, America Again [Sono Luminus], represents multifaceted America. Inspired by the 1935 Langston Hughes’ poem, Let America Be America Again, 21 tracks by 19 composers from varied backgrounds celebrate a rich musical legacy. While liner notes share the 2016 Sphinx Award-winning artist’s urgent response to historical and contemporary struggles over racial and economic inequality, the carefully curated selections pay tribute to patience, perseverance, and peaceful resolve. Perhaps more than anything, it is this unlikely pairing of propulsive energy and a crushing need for peace and stillness that is America. Downes, with her broad musical interests and her more-than capable hands on the keyboard, touches on America’s essence.
Among the CD’s treasures are familiar works: a lovely, aching rendition of Shenandoah; Harold Arlen’s wishful, wispy Over the Rainbow; the simple dignity of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s arrangement of Deep River; Nina Simone’s tender take on George Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy.
There’s bounce and bluesy-ness in selections like Amy Beach’s Blackbird Hills. Undergirded by an Omaha Native American song, Blackbird suggests a spirited exuberance; the fragile center section is equally convincing and lifts the veil on Downes’ emotional range. Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, Scott Joplin’s Gladiolus Rag and other upbeat selections showcase Downes’ impressive technique. The tranquility of Puerto Rican-born composer Angélica Negrón’s Sueno Recurrente and Howard Hanson’s Slumber Song provide equal artistry at the other end of the expressive spectrum.
Arguably, the CD’s gem is African-American composer Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre. Price was a contemporary of Hughes and wrote the work in 1929, shortly after a lynching near her home in Little Rock caused her to flee with her family to Chicago. Her Symphony in E Minor, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, was the first orchestral work written by an African American that was played by a major orchestra. Fantasie’s lyricism and virtuoso passages suggest that, had she been born in another era, Price would have received more recognition. Downes’ nuanced performance pays a deserved tribute.
Downes, born to a white, Eastern European Jewish mother and a father who was Jamaican, calls herself “Jewmaican.” A Bay Area native, she said in an interview in 2016 with this publication that most of her early classical music training was in Europe—” I studied music written by white men,” she said. Speaking about the recording several months prior to its October release, Downes said, “These black composers have been very overlooked. I see the CD as a reflection of Hughes’ words. The central point is about a dream that’s never come but that we have to keep working towards. You can lay the poem atop the music and it’s like a river, going forwards and backwards.”
Which suggests an intriguing idea. Played backward, would Downes CD lay a mirror image? Would a reverse engineered soundtrack express America’s loss and redemption, ambition and ambiguity, loneliness and love—or something entirely new? Forward or backward, America Again is a CD to play again, and again.