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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 10, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 50
Pianist in over her head at Meany Hall
Arts & Entertainment
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Pianist in over her head at Meany Hall

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Recital by pianist Lara Downes
December 1
Meany Hall


I don't envy young pianists in today's competitive market; there are just too many brilliant young artists, each with amazing techniques and each with something special to offer. Unfortunately, Lara Downes has neither, and is in no way a contender for a place among the top pianists before the public today.

Negative reviews are not fun; it is all too easy to tick off the many deficiencies of her playing. Like so many young opera singers, she showed very limited dynamic range, with almost everything played at a medium-loud (mezzo forte) or above. She also used a very limited tonal palette; most of the music was sweet, with all the rough edges smoothed over. The sound became boring because so much the same. Her technical facility did not appear easy, causing her on a couple occasions to either slow down in order to negotiate all the notes or to fumble and slur the notes, covering the confusion with overuse of the pedal. In fact, when I watched her feet, the pedal was being used full on more often than off. Crystal clarity was certainly not her strong point.

While her tone was always pleasant, her artistry never seemed to get inside the music and came across as superficial and unaware of what the music might be saying. The most obvious example was in her lackluster performance of the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo. This is gutsy, witty music, full of wild abandon and raucous exhilaration. All of these qualities were missing. Her playing lacked bite, attack, wit, and charm.

What Lara Downes did have in her favor was a pleasant manner of addressing the audience and a program of considerable interest. It consisted entirely of American composers. Roy Harris' American Ballads opened the evening, followed in the first half by Samuel Barber's Excursions, Op. 20 and the Copland Rodeo Dance Episodes. After intermission, we got "Fantasie Negre" by Florence Price, Copland's Four Piano Blues and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Unfortunately, the last item was a near-disaster. It lacked any sensuous, jazzy swagger, as well as the New York raucous energy so essential to this piece. At one point, Downes' fingers seemed to get tangled up in a technically challenging passage; it was hard to hear exactly what went wrong because her heavy use of the pedal made it a confused mess.

I don't know how an artist so clearly not ready for the major circuit was engaged in the prestigious President's Piano Series at Meany Hall. If you want to experience the best of today's crop of young pianists, be sure to catch Simon Trpceski, who returns to Meany on Wednesday, February 16, or Yevgeny Sudbin, Wednesday, April 20.

On a positive note, the new projection system for giving the entire audience a good view of the pianist's hands on the keyboard worked very well. (Those sitting in the first couple rows, however, would find it a difficult stretch to glance at the screen high above their heads.) Previously, anybody sitting in the right half of the auditorium could not see what the pianist was doing with the keyboard. The screen was clear and accomplished its purpose without in any way distracting from our experience. My friend, Gordon Grant, said, "It's a little like the introduction of the supratitles at the opera!"

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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