“Dream of me”, music from the scintillating pianist Lara Downes... Daydreams and night visions; the musical journeys you take and can’t remember in the morning... This is distinctive, timeless music by some of the best New American Romantics, including William Bolcom’s “Dream Shadows”; Aaron Kernis' richly poetic "Before Sleep and Dreams"; Adam Silverman’s “Nocturnes and Reveries” and Dan Coleman’s “Burden of Dreams”. Lara puts this eclectic mix to bed with her own arrangement of the Mamas and Papas 60's hit “Dream a Little Dream of Me."
William Bolcom’s "Dream Shadows" is a sultry, sleepy ragtime ballad with modernist tendencies. Its nostalgic melodies meander through lush harmonies that are tinged with just enough unexpected dissonance to evoke the surreal twists and turns that dreams can take. Imagine last call in some cocktail lounge that’s seen better days, the dreamers and losers finally calling it a night. When WB heard this track, he wrote me a sweet note: “ ‘Sleazy’ in just the right way.” Yes, this is a compliment!
As the mother of two very small children, my own relationship to sleep and dreams is a conflicted one – white nights of dreams snatched between cries of “Mommy”, small bodies climbing into the bed, trips to fetch water and teddy bears for disgruntled sleepers... My evenings, too, are ruled by the rituals and rhythms of my children’s bedtimes. Aaron Kernis’ "Before Sleep and Dreams" takes as its inspiration the image of a child preparing (or being prepared) for bed. The first movement is suggestive of the approaching evening as signaled by bell-like sounds, while the second is playful and light, and precedes the central lullaby, which is alternatively gentle, passionate, and soothing. A brief movement in perpetual motion suggests the flickering lights seen behind closed eyelids and the final movement (a second lullaby), peaceful and lush but for a short section of playful music, brings the work to a close.
Samuel Barber’s "Nocturne" is a piece I’ve loved for years. It’s defiantly tonal, Romantic music written in 1959 when everyone else was doing the serialism/high modern thing. If you try hard, you can hear the slightest hint of twelve-tone technique, but Barber never strays from gorgeous, linear, melody and elegant lyricism. The piece is dedicated to the Irish Romantic composer John Field, who came up with the nocturne as a compositional form and then passed it on to Chopin, who made it forever his own.
Adam Silverman wrote "Nocturnes and Reveries" for me in 2004. It’s a set of meditations on the rhythms of a dreamer’s body, evoking the sound of the heartbeat and the phrasing of long breaths. The first piece (“Fleeting”) is a dreamlike haze swirling in the highest notes of the notes of the piano, working its way downward through sorrowing half-step falls. The second piece (“Sentimentally”) is an alter-ego of the first; each of its chords is exactly transposed from the first movement, which has the same number of measures, the same harmonic patterns, and a completely different musical feel. The third piece (“Agitated”) provides brief pause from the languorous nature of the others. Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor inspired the minimalist fourth piece (“Tenderly”). The fifth piece (“Dolce, sostenuto”) focuses on the sleepy feeling of very long breaths, with thick, gentle chords, long crescendos, and supple pacing. The final piece (“Sprightly”), is the most spirited, the dreamer waking.
Dan Coleman wrote "Burden of Dreams" in 1994. His notes: “I believe that a ‘collective unconscious’ exists for composers who inhabit the Western tradition: tropes reappear in mysterious and unexpected ways. In Burden of Dreams I explore such musical symbols and discover them to be both beautiful and troubling. I borrowed the title of this suite from a work by visual artist Elaine Reichek, who in turn borrowed the title from the Les Blank documentary film about Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. The title itself serves as a kind of prism through which we may view the metaphorical layers of the piece. Throughout the five movements, I juxtapose phrases that are derived from different historical styles. In every movement, an insistent note (A flat) interrupts the flow of the music just as a sound from the real world might invade the dream of a sleeping person.”
In the world of songwriting, dreams have long been the stuff that ballads are made of: "Beautiful Dreamer"; "Daydream Believer"; "Never Had a Dream Come True"...
"Dream a Little Dream of Me" is one of those songs that everyone knows. It was composed in 1931 by two now-forgotten musicians: Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by the great Gus Kahn (who also wrote one of my personal favorites, Making Whoopee). This song has been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong on the Wonderful World album to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, but the definitive version was by "Mama" Cass Elliot in 1968 with The Mamas & the Papas.
LARA DOWNES: www.laradownes.com
“A most delightful artist, with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship.”
-National Public Radio
WILLIAM BOLCOM: www.bolcomandmorris.com
“Bolcom is something of a compositional chameleon, able to adopt the styles and signifiers of many composers and genres. Rather than supplying a readily recognizable compositional voice -- the goal of most in his profession -- Bolcom instead revels in this fluently eclectic milieu.”
AARON JAY KERNIS: www.dworkineliason.com/html/kernis/kernis_artist.html
"The appeal of his music is clear: he is an eclectic composer who seems to draw on everything from pop forms to the most abstruse modernist styles, and he uses these disparate elements to create works that are colorful and inviting but never simplistic.” — The New York Times
DAN COLEMAN: www.dancoleman.com
“A gifted young composer who is proving one of Tucson's most valuable recent acquisitions.”
— The Tucson Citizen
SAMUEL BARBER: www.schirmer.com/composers/barber_bio.html
“Born of what I feel. I am not a self-conscious composer.”
ADAM SILVERMAN: www.adambsilverman.com
“…gurgling washes of sweet tonality, slightly out of kilter, slightly tongue in cheek."
-The New York Times
THE SACRAMENTO BEE
The keys of Lara Downes: A romantic, dreamy CD
By Edward Ortiz -- Bee Arts Critic - (Published June 15, 2006)
Pianists have long explored the world of sleep and dreams as a source of material.
But few have taken the approach that Lara Downes has with her latest CD, "Dream of Me." Downes will be performing excerpts from her new album at a CD release party Saturday at the R.H. Phillips Winery in Esparto.
Downes, 37, who is artist-in- residence at the Mondavi Center on the UC Davis campus, has always prided herself on avoiding the cookie-cutter approach to concert programming and choosing works for recordings.
"Dream of Me" is no exception.
Downes performs works by well-known American composers such as Samuel Barber and Aaron Jay Kernis, as well as the not-so-well-known Dan Coleman and Adam Silverman.
All of the works on the CD were written on the theme of sleep and dreaming.
Her CD is being released through Tritone Music and will be available for download from the iTunes Web site later this month, and in record stores later this summer.
"I call these guys the 'New American Romantics,' " Downes said of the composers. "They're all working in the neo-Romantic style."
Downes describes the pieces on her CD as "beautiful music."
She was attracted to American-born composers because they do not feel beholden to any of the musical "isms" that took hold in the 20th century.
"I think that this is the first generation of composers that are kind of free from the feeling of measuring up and keeping abreast of what was going on in Europe," Downes said.
"In 'Dreams,' you have composers working outside all kinds of boundaries. We have composers who are used to writing for film, the stage and orchestral work."
One of the compositions -- "Nocturnes and Reveries" -- was written by Silverman for Downes in 2004. The piece is a meditation on the rhythms of a dreamer's body and evokes the sound of a heartbeat along with the phrasing of long breaths.
Silverman, 33, is a New York-based composer who writes highly theatrical classical music, including the opera "Korczak's Orphans," which was performed by New York City Opera. He also wrote the conceptual music- theater work "Telemusic," which uses the odd instrumentation of telephone and percussion.
Kernis' "Before Sleep and Dreams" takes a different approach. Kernis' work is a light and delicate six-movement musical exploration on the physical process that a child goes through as he or she gets prepared for sleep.
In 1998, when he was 28, Kernis became one of the youngest composers to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his String Quartet No. 2.
Downes was attracted to Kernis' "Before Sleep and Dreams" because of her role as the mother of Charlotte, 4, and Simon, 2.
"As a mother of two very small children, my relationship to sleep and dreams is a conflicted one," she said. Often, her evenings are ruled by the rituals demanded of putting her children to bed.
Although her album is mainly devoted to classical music, Downes is not afraid to cross over into other genres. One of the songs on the CD is "Dream a Little Dream of Me" by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, which has been recorded by such artists as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and the Mamas and the Papas.
Downes believes that her less-than-traditional approach has served her well.
"I'm among a group of classical musicians that does have a wider audience," she said.
The reason, Downes believes, is conceptual.
"I think more thematically, both programmatically and in recordings," Downes said. "I like to put out a group of works that I feel have a unifying thread, or interesting contrasts.
"I've never wanted to do an all-Beethoven disc. It's not the thing I feel I have to say."
Downes' approach to music owes much to her unusual upbringing.
The eldest of three musical daughters, Downes grew up in San Francisco. A precocious child, she had by age 7 composed an opera based on the book "Charlotte's Web."
Her education was a combination of home schooling and study with teachers at the San Francisco Conservatory and, after her family moved to Europe, at the Vienna Hoch- schule Conservatory and the Music Academy in Basel, Switzerland.
"I think that experience imparted something," Downes said.
She believes that home schooling allowed her to learn at her own pace, which in turn allowed her to explore what really interested her.
"I have a very independent way of thinking," she said. "That has really had a great impact on my career and the kinds of projects I take on, and the niche I have carved out for myself."
That career has much to do with unexpected pairings of musical works, as shown by her latest CD. She plans to play some of those compositions side by side at her recital with proto-Romantic works such as a Chopin nocturne and Schumann's "Fantasy."
"I think it will be interesting to see the parallels between 21st century Romantics and 18th century Romantics," she said.