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Lara Downes plays Berkeley's First Congregational Church / San Francisco Classical Voice

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The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra brought their February concert series to a memorable conclusion on Sunday afternoon at Berkeley's First Congregational Church in a program featuring exceptional performances by pianist Lara Downes.

Music Director Ben Simon introduced the West Coast premiere of Maria Schneider's Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories as music that's "neither jazz nor classical." He didn't go so far as to mention Duke Ellington's famous quote defining "good music" but he may as well have because however one views the piece -- a five-part suite setting the Brazilian poet's words to music-- it casts a spell quickly and holds on.

Lara Downes summoned the spirit of his Robert Schumann's famous wife Clara in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, as the soloist in a sumptuous performance by everyone involved was perfectly in sync with the orchestra from the concerto's opening bark through its rollicking, dance-like coda. Downes proved to be the perfect co-conspirator for Schumann's paean to lyricism over flash.

During the first movement the pianist and orchestra explore the themes in tandem and in conversation before the orchestra drops out completely, leaving the piano teetering on the edge of a cliff. Downes stepped off this peak into the cadenza as if she were confidently descending a tightrope from dramatic heights into a delicate, sensual conversation before the orchestra rejoined her.

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