Pianist’s style melds Bach, Brubeck
Downes drawn to composers’ connections, inspirations
Two years ago, pianist Lara Downes performed a program titled “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” in Spokane for the Northwest Bach Festival.
This year, she’s back, and one of the two programs she’s performing this weekend is the result of her work on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a related CD she recorded.
“In the process of putting together that record, I had looked outside of that specific set of pieces for other things that were inspired by Bach,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “And then I found this Brubeck piece.”
Brubeck, of course, is Dave Brubeck, the influential jazz pianist and composer who died in 2012. His quartet’s 1959 recording of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” is the best-selling jazz single of all time.
But in doing her research into Bach and Brubeck, Downes discovered the deep connection between the two composers who lived 300 years apart. Among the works she’ll perform Saturday at Barrister Winery is a movement from Brubeck’s Chromatic Fantasy Sonata, a composition for classical piano that is inspired by Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, which she’ll also perform.
“There’s this whole side of Brubeck that jazz fans and jazz listeners don’t know,” she said. “His concert music was so different than his jazz writing. It was really just a whole other side of his musical self, and that’s where you see the affinity for Bach.”
The program also will include music from another jazz composer and pianist, Fred Hersch, and his Variations on the Bach Chorale. “Which, again, it’s another instance of someone who is operating in a completely different genre of music who has this deep and abiding love of Bach,” Downes said. “It’s interesting to see what he does with the chorale form. He’s taking a very simple, beautiful chorale and then just playing with different rhythms and stylistic areas, all of which have a pretty specific voice. Fred has a very unique way of writing for the piano.”
The second half of the program, coincidently, serves as a sort of bridge between Bach and the program she and cellist Zuill Bailey will perform on Sunday, which is centered on American composers, including Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. She’ll perform some selections from her solo CD, “Exiles’ Café,” and conclude with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
On Sunday, Downes and Bailey – the festival’s artistic director and her friend – will close out the Northwest Bach Festival with “Red, White, Blue & Sparkling – Made in America” at St. John’s Cathedral. The show will serve as the CD release concert for their new CD, “Some Other Time.”
“The first time we played together, we met playing the Barber cello sonata. It was the centennial of Barber’s birth, so I guess it was 2009. The first time we ever sat down with our instruments together was with the sonata, and we’ve been playing it ever since. It forms the centerpiece of this recording, which is all American music – Barber and Bernstein and Copland – and a lot of music that was created by musical friendships.”