About a year ago, pianist Lara Downes left her Sacramento house for the first time since the pandemic struck. Black Lives Matter protests had erupted nearby, and she felt compelled to join in. She’d long championed the work of composers of color, and worked on behalf of social justice. Now, returning from the demonstrations, she felt inspired despite the turmoil: people were coming together in solidarity against injustice. She grabbed an old cassette recorder and started playing music written by Black composers during earlier times of trouble and transformation.
Those recordings turned into a series of releases, partly enabled by the pandemic-enforced shutdowns that canceled her frenetic touring schedule but also inspired the already prolific performer, activist, and recording artist to embark on new journeys and expand her already abundant artistic life. Her new and recent recordings of new or neglected music by women and composers of color are broadening the repertoire for classical pianists, and enriching our musical environment.
“Beautiful things can come out of difficulty,” she says introducing her recording of composer Elena Ruhr’s alluring new Quiet Streets, a composition for piano, saxophone and electronics that she wrote for Downes after dreaming about her friend performing music in a virus-hushed city whose inhabitants had been shunted into home retreat. It’s one of her two virtual mini concerts recorded at her home and streaming free on the Oregon Bach Festival site through July 11, part of an extended teaching residency at the University of Oregon. Downes has been turning difficulty — sexism, racism, elitism — into beauty for years, and her words and music especially resonate now in this especially difficult time.
Downes came by her expansive artistic vision early. The child of a Black father from Harlem and a white mother from Akron who’d met at a 1960s San Francisco sit-in protest, she grew up listening to many flavors of music, ranging from classical to the jazz and Caribbean sounds from her father’s Jamaican heritage to the music she heard at temple as she was raised in her mom’s Eastern European Jewish tradition. (She calls her racial heritage “Jewmaican.”) After home schooling and conservatory training, she spent a decade in Europe, where “I was a foreigner, exotic, just because I was American,” she told San Francisco Classical Voice. “Coming back to the States, I had to sort out what race means in America, what it means to be biracial in classical music.”
She returned to the US with a renewed craving for American sounds, which she began recording and performing in venues around the world, from high-art institutions like the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Tanglewood to new music hipster havens such as National Sawdust and Le Poisson Rouge. Her previous stops in Portland included gigs with both traditionalist Portland Piano International and upstart Classical Revolution PDX. (She’d long performed with the group’s original San Francisco chapter.)
Over the past decade or so, she’s worked with artists including Yo Yo Ma, Judy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and many others. She’s commissioned and premiered new music by Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, Clarice Assad and many other contemporary composers. And she’s engaged in advocacy and mentorship with non profits including voter rights group HeadCount, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sphinx Organization, which in 2016 awarded her $50,000 career grant given each year to distinguished, emerging classical artists of color.
Throughout, Downes’ hallmark has been bringing in more diverse artists and audiences to a music establishment long plagued by elitism, racism, sexism, and contemporary irrelevance. In a 2013 interview with ArtsWatch’s Jana Hanchett, Downes listed some symptoms. “First of all, a $75 ticket, for a lot of people. The mean lady who glares at you if your seat squeaks. Boring concerts. Lazy marketing. In short, the practice that has been in place for some time of selling classical music to the already initiated and making it quite unfriendly to the novice.”
Downs is one of the leaders in changing classical music. “I’m glad to be part of a generation of musicians who are totally aware of the need to reach out in a genuine, active way to wider audiences,” she said, “to connect with listeners, and to educate in the real sense of the word, to make sure that what we do has relevance to the real world we live in.”
She’s been demonstrating that commitment in a startling range of projects.
• Downes’s investment in music’s future as well as its neglected past fuels her My Promise Project, a series of workshops she started in 2016. In small-town and big city schools around the country, they’ve helped young people and marginalized groups that might not have access to classical music figure out steps they can take to achieve their goals — even if it’s something as ambitious as, say, ending racism.
• Downes’s biweekly National Public Radio podcast series, Amplify, which debuted last fall, features her video conversations with soprano Julia Bullock, jazz pianist Jon Batiste, former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and other prominent artists of color. Downes was already one of the rotating hosts of NPR’s From The Top radio show, and she’d gained experience interviewing other artists in her live Artist Sessions at San Francisco’s Yoshi’s jazz club, and in her On the Bench conversations with other pianists.
• This year, she also launched Rising Sun Music, a digital-format record label presenting works by Black composers spanning two centuries. (She’d earlier recorded under the auspices of her Tritone Records label.) The ongoing series presents monthly EPs featuring Downes playing music celebrating specific themes. She’ll enrich the repertoire by recording hitherto unrecorded or unavailable historical works she’s unearthed in archives and libraries, and new music by contemporary composers. It’s started with solo and chamber music recordings and she hopes eventually to record orchestral works. This month, she issues the first album compilation of some of those streamed works combined with new recordings.
• Downes also recently joined Northern California Classical KDFC radio as resident artist, hosting a nightly evening music show and curating and creating new digital content that gives “listeners a more in-depth look at the creativity and history that has shaped our musical lives.”
Broadening the Canon
Downes’s recent recordings reflect many of her eclectic passions, especially for sounds long marginalized by the classical establishment — American composers, women composers, Black composers. As with the new projects inspired by the Black Lives protests, she’s long responded to fraught events with music. America Again, “a collection of music that asks listeners to consider some deep questions about American history within the landscape of our music,” was conceived after the 2015 white supremacist Charleston massacre. That 2017 album celebrated Lou Harrison, Florence Price, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin and many more. She’s recorded album length tributes to the music of Billie Holiday and an earlier genre-busting classical populist, Leonard Bernstein, as well as more traditional “classical” composers like J.S. Bach and Clara and Robert Schumann. In 2019, Holes in the Sky (which she’s called her favorite project) showcased female composers past and present, from Price, Holiday and Margaret Bonds to Higdon, Joni Mitchell, Eve Beglarian and more, and paired her with female performers like Judy Collins, Giddens and Rachel Barton Pine. Those selections formed the core of her 2020 Year of the Woman performances.
“It has felt from the very beginning that the world of classical music has been a male world,” she told Classical Voice. “I’m drawn to the women’s stories because it feels like me. Everyone wants to see themselves in a field they aspire to work in.”
Her spiffy new album releasing next week, New Day Begun, pairs Downes with guest artists violinist Regina Carter, bass-baritone Davóne Tines (who’s singing at Chamber Music Northwest this month), and PUBLIQuartet in music by Sam Cooke, jazz vocal legend Abbey Lincoln the great 20th century African American composers William Grant Still and Duke Ellington, and contemporary voices such as Daniel Bernard Roumain, Alvin Singleton and more.
Her organic interpretations of music from beyond the narrow-minded traditional classical core sound completely at home in the “classical” context of a piano recital or album. “ There is a reason that some of the music sounds more grounded into a classical space,” she explains. “That music always has some elements of a classical root to it. Eubie Blake, Hazel Scott, Nina Simone and others started there, but they had no opportunity to pursue a career in classical music. I’m trying to give that back to them in these interpretations.”
By bringing jazz, pop, spirituals and overlooked composers of color into a classical context so organically, Downes is both broadening the classical piano audience and enriching the repertoire for future generations of performers. “I’m really loving this opportunity to reimagine all these platforms,” she says. “It’s really a dream come true to be able to connect with so many different audiences.”
Recently those audiences have included University of Oregon students. She came to the Eugene campus in the February right before the shutdown, to collaborate in a performance with the School of Music & Dance and Eugene Ballet and to give workshops and master classes, which extended into a “virtual residency” last year. She found that many students lamented classical music establishment’s “messed up power dynamic,” and wanted those institutions to change. “Don’t expect your primary teacher or insitution to give you everything you want,” she told them. “Be an active participant in your own development from the beginning, finding out who’s out there to help, what resources are available. Students can be part of instigating change,” she insists.
Downes assigned students to come up with projects that would engage them in dialogue with their community, find out what they wanted and needed, and use music to provide it. “I tried to show them how to be engaged and active and contributing artists like Bernstein and Yo Yo Ma, how to serve your community,” she recalls. “Out of all the Zoom things I’ve done this year, that was the most rewarding.”
The pandemic prevented her from venturing north for this summer’s festival, but she plans to return next year. Meanwhile, you can see her contribution to the 2021 OBF, a two-part concert called Phenomenal Women, though the end of the festival. The first features the new concerto written for Downes by Ruehr, along with compositions by Bonds and Price, whose recently discovered music Downes has released on more than a dozen singles in her new series. The second part includes more music by Bonds, Beglarian, Scott and Amy Beach. Most of the music is also available on her recordings and live performance videos. “One good thing about the pandemic,” she chuckles, “is that it extended the Year of the Woman by another year.”
Clearly, Downes has put the Covid-enforced break in performing to good use. Beyond her new initiatives and recordings, “I’m learning I’m not alone in some ways I thought was alone,” she says. “Feeling like an outsider, avoid being boxed in, dividing up your energy and time because you care about all these things, doing the unexpected things, taking the winding path — we all thought we were doing it alone. It’s a beautiful thing to open a new community among mavericks. Weirdly, this year of isolation allowed for connection in pretty profound ways. It’s been a gift because it’s allowed me to build these relationships and friendships. I’ve enjoyed my time with people I’ve gotten to know, and I’m looking forward to continuing it even after I start performing again. I won’t go back.”
But even if she’s determined not to let her frenetic schedule impede her relationships post-pandemic, Downes does look forward to hitting the road, where she can connect with audiences and experience first-hand evidence of music’s transformational power. “The way I expand on these stories through the historical and cultural references — we are feeling the things that bring us together in ways we don’t always immediately recognize,” she wrote. “That’s what I witness in the concert hall when people lean together and breathe together. There are bigger vibrations than just the music: it’s deep, human connection.”
The day after the catastrophic 2016 national election, she arrived, tearful and sleep deprived, in Louisville to play for a small, equally “shell shocked” audience. “When I finished the concert, two things happened,” she wrote. “A gentleman towards the back of the room stood up and he said, ‘My wife wants me to tell you that your music gave her hope tonight.’ She couldn’t speak herself, because she was weeping. And then a young man raised his hand from the front row and said, ‘My family is undocumented, but your music made us feel like we belong here.’
“I’ve never looked back from that moment,” she wrote. “Because even on your worst night, when you feel despairing and destroyed, you can give something, as an artist, that offers hope and belonging. And that can be change-making.”
This year’s Oregon Bach Festival continues through July 11. You can see all the festival videos here.
Check out Downes’s Juneteenth playlist with fascinating historical photos.
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Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.