Bach to the Future
Pianist brings modern touch to a centuries-old classic
By Sam Adams
Most kids don't relish the thought of spending their entire Saturday glued to a piano bench. (It sounds like cruel, Victorian child torture if you ask me.) But that wasn't the case for Lara Downes, who grew up in San Francisco and began playing regularly at the age of 3. "I didn't know there was anything different," says Downes. "I always loved it, I never really wanted to do anything else."
Photo by Andrea Bucheli
Her prodigious talents and work ethic paid off, as Downes is now world-renowned for her energetic rendition of a more than 250-year-old classic. She'll be performing her most lauded piece in Albuquerque on April 22 as part of the Sunday Chatter series. It's a riff on the classic Goldberg Variations, published by Bach in 1741 at the behest of an ailing German count. It's reputed that harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg would play the piece to help the count relax in his bed chambers.
Coincidentally, Downes was introduced to the Goldberg Variations in a similar way. It began with her father, who was a huge fan of Glenn Gould, the experimental pianist who recorded a version of Bach's harpsichord piece in 1955. That recording was groundbreaking and wildly popular at its time, reawakening audiences to one of Bach's livelier and more stylistically challenging works. It was “something that we would listen to all the time," Downes says. "And I remember that was sort of the consistent bedtime music that [my father] and I would listen to in the evening when things were quieting down."
The next major incarnation of the Goldbergs came 50 years later in the form of 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined, a collaboration between 13 composers that aimed to reinterpret Bach's classic. 13 Ways was first performed in 2004 at the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival by pianist Gilbert Kalish. Downes says she didn't hear of the piece until about six years later, and she was immediately smitten. In 2011, Downes put down the music in a recording studio in New York and became inextricably linked to the theretofore unrecorded project.
While Downes says becoming the face of this contemporary rendition has at times been daunting, she's received overwhelmingly positive response. But most of all, she sees 13 Ways as a part of an important and time-defying conversation. "It's kind of a three-way dialogue," she says referring back to Bach and Gould. "What I really love about this project is the overarching historical perspective. The things that connect successive generations of musicians, or people in general."
Performing in Bach’s contrapuntal style, which often involves tricky hand crossovers, comes naturally to Downes. After playing in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she studied for several years in Europe, concentrating on baroque, including the repertoires of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
Downes hasn’t performed in New Mexico—at least not officially. She shares an anecdote from about 10 years back when she was having cocktails with friends at an old hotel (La Fonda, she thinks) in Santa Fe. As the night's pianist took a break, her friends urged her to command the keyboard. She did, and patrons were so moved by her impromptu performance that one lady came up to her with an offer. "What she really wanted me to do was apply to the Miss America Pageant," Downes says, laughing.
Photo by Rik Keller
While she denied the offer, she certainly isn't one to shy away from challenges. "Maybe there are a few people who think it's too ballsy, too audacious,” she says, referring to 13 Ways, “but I think that it's something really important that we can do to keep this music alive."
Sunday Chatter (formerly The Church of Beethoven)
Performance by Lara Downes, reading by poet Jessica Helen Lopez
Sunday, April 22, 10:30 a.m.
1715 Fifth Street NW
Tickets: $9 to $15 adults, $5 under-12
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