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Ludwig Van
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Concert: Lara Downes brings fantastically fresh takes on Bach's Goldberg Variation Aria to Gallery 345 on Jan. 13

By John Terauds on January 6, 2012

Vienna-educated San Francisco native pianist Lara Downes has thrown off the stiff cloak of tradition in favour of something much more freewheeling and stylish.

On Friday the 13th, Toronto has its first opportunity to hear Downes live. At Parkdale’s Gallery 345, Downes presents 13 ways of Looking at the Goldberg, Variations on Bach’s Aria, a 45-minute cycle of musically imaginative riffs, bookended by Bach’s original “Aria” (in the same way it is in the original Goldberg Variations).

This past fall, Downes released an album of the work, commissioned in 2004 by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Michigan for veteran American pianist Gilbert Kalish. Not only are the new pieces by well-known composers such as William Bolcom, David Del Tredici, Jennifer Higdon and Lukas Foss a treat, but Downes’ studio interpretations radiate an intense magnetic force wrapped in flawless technique and a silken touch.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

In the best spirit of making new music programming accessible to every listener, the pieces include dreamy jazz riffs (in Foss’s “Goldmore Variation”), lush neo-Romantic syrup (“Melancholy Minuet” by Fred Hirsch) to playful pointillism (Fred Lehrdahl’s “Chasing Goldberg”), Satie-like silk (“My Goldberg Variation,” written by Del Tredici) and sheer harmonic extravagance (Ralf Gothóni’s “Variation on Variation with Variation”), with Webern- and Ives-like dips into angular dissonance in between.

As eager to share the magic as I am, Downes is streaming the entire album (including some juicy extras from Dave Brubeck, Foss and Bach himself) on her Facebook band page. Check it out here.

For Toronto concert and ticket information, go to Gallery 345’s website, here.

In conversation from her home, Downes confesses that her long love for the Goldberg Variations, which includes learning them while in university, hasn’t translated into any public performances. Like so many other pianists confronted with the monument that is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, “It’s one of the roadblocks to making it my own,” she says.

(Simone Dinnerstein admitted the same thing after she released her take on the Goldbergs in 2007, saying it took her many years to find the self-confidence to step out from Gould’s shadow.)

Downes says she felt “a tremendous shift” when she encountered 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, realising that she had, at last, found a creative outlet.

She also says that it was a particular pleasure to work with living composers on getting the cycle ready for recording and public performance. “I felt like everyone who participated has had a very warm personal feeling for the project,” she adds.

Downes took the original order of the pieces, as published from Kalish’s commission, and reorganized them into a new arc. “I start with the pieces that are closest to Bach, gradually move away and then come back,” she says.

“I’m addicted to having a story to tell,” the pianist explains. “So much of the programming I do right now is story-heavy, it’s how I’m communicating right now. I love what it does to an audience.”

Downes enjoys the advantage of having her own public laboratory/sounding board.  Since 2004, she has been the artist in residence at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at the Davis campus of the University of California, just outside Sacramento. Among the many things she has done there is create a young performers’ program, including founding a piano competition for children. (She has two young ones of her own, aged 8 and 10.)

The pianist says she is impressed with the fresh interpretations she has been hearing lately from students of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music, calling them much more free than anything people have heard for the past 50 years.

Downes says her work with children has filled her with hope for the future.

“With all the changes we’re seeing, it’s an amazing opportunity to give new life to this artform,” she says. Programmes like 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, are part of that shift.

For a sample of what to expect at Gallery 345, here are snippets from Downes performance of 13 Ways at the Mondavi Centre before Christmas:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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