On 13th August, pianist Lara Downes hosted a bicentennial birthday party for Clara Schumann at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust. Without quite saying as much, the program served as a tribute to Schumann’s spirit by presenting works written by and performed by women from her time to ours.

Simone Dinnerstein and Lara Downes at National Sawdust
© Christine DiPasquale

Downes opened the program with the first and third of Schumann’s 3 Romances Op.11 of 1839. The set was written when Clara Wieck was just 20, right after meeting her future husband, Robert. Downes clearly connected with the romance in the music, rocking slowly on the bench, letting the time sink, roll and pull itself up again as if she were playing a pair of instrumental torch songs.

Downes brought harpist Bridget Kibbey to the stage, introduced by classical radio WQXR's Clemency Burton-Hill, who gave lengthy introductions to the players and back announced the selections.

“I'm deeply inspired by the music and the person of Nina Simone and there were some of her songs that I thought would work really well with this combination,” Downes said. She and Kibbey played duet arrangements of two songs not written by Simone but inspired by the songstress's performances. A slow and lush take on the folk song Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair kept the familiar chord progression in the pianist's left hand and filled it with harp arpeggios to pleasing effect, if lacking the mournfulness usually associated with the song. The gospel-inflected Take Me to the Water kept steadier time with Kibbey playing bright staccato, repeatedly muting the strings with her palms.

Downes' playing is soulful, fluid, perhaps rather American, which gave the Schumann pieces a late-night jazziness. That, in itself, needn't be a problem, but the tendency fit better with Simone, and with Florence Price, a Harlem Renaissance composer who has been enjoying a renaissance of her own of late. Price was among the first to bring the influence of African-American spirituals into the concert hall and Downes opened her 2019 album Holes in the Sky with Price's Memory Mist. Downes returned to the Harlem Renaissance later in the program for a piece by Margaret Bonds, Troubled Water, based on the spiritual Wade in the Water. It was rousing in its variations not just on but within the theme, its utterly unexpected pauses and parentheticals, without losing the spirit of the song.

Sitting in composer Paola Prestini's house, so to speak (Prestini is co-founder and artistic director of the Williamsburg venue) perhaps gave Downes a sharper focus. The two excerpts from Prestini’s Limpopo Songs seemed more beholden to the notes on the page, or on her backlit tablet in any event. Her playing was crisp and precise, still with moments of swagger but delivered with rigor.

Liz Queler’s Mezuga (in its premiere performance) felt more tailored to Downes' hand, and as such promised to bridge the previous and current centuries in the program – and did so, despite a moment's faltering in the demanding fingerings. Another contemporary piece, Elizabeth Brewer's Music Pink and Blue, took inspiration from the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. (The artist also gave Downes the title of her recent CD.) Here there was contrast between the strong left hand and the, shall we say, painterly phrases in the right, a tension that seemed lacking in the preceding program.

The fine Mexican singer Magos Herrera took the stage for a pair of Latin American folk songs. She was accompanied on the first by Downes in a beautifully unhurried lullaby, Herrera somehow seeming to sing from her throat and whisper from her mouth at the same time. With Kibbey, she sang a setting of an Argentinian poem, the harp beginning in the role of guitar and building to a heart-stopping fullness with beautifully bent blue notes at the climax.

The high point, however, was a pair of by Meredith Monk duets performed by Downes and Simone Dinnerstein, one of New York's true piano treasures. Dinnerstein set the pace for Ellis Island with Downes providing embellishment. It excelled not just due to Monk's exquisite construction but because of the impassioned one-brain-four-hands delivery. For Obsolete Objects, Dinnerstein took the role of accoutrement, playing fantastically placed repetitions within the brisk chordings. It was quick and magnificent.

An encore kept to the populist spirit with a piano rendition of Favorite Color, an early and little known Joni Mitchell song. The selection confirmed what is evident both on record and in performance, that Downes wants her music to be approachable and inviting. She wants complexity to melt like butter and she manages that, whether or not the music demands it.