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Pianist Lara Downes: Artist and Activist

Rik Keller
Lara Downes

Lara Downes describes these times as the "lost season," referring to the blanket cancellations of concert engagements practically every performing artist in the world is now suffering. She may be sidelined, but she is not silenced, musically or on any number of other topics related to music and its power to contribute to our conversations of race, injustice, and Covid-19. James Baker, host of KPAC's Classics a la Carte, recently talked to Lara about her background, her activist roots and making music in a time of pandemic.

James Baker: That was called "Memory Mist," and it's by Florence Price. I have loved this from my first hearing of Lara Downes recent album called "Holes in the Sky." Ever since, I've looked forward to having a conversation with Lara Downes, and here we are. Lara, there's so much we could talk about, and radio constrains us, but I have really found interesting your story, and I hope you don't mind beginning the story with how your parents met.

Lara Downes: Well, I wasn't there, so I only know what I've been told, but my parents had both ended up in San Francisco in the mid to late '60s for different reasons. My dad came from New York, and my mom was coming from Ohio, and she had just finished law school. She decided to take the bar in California. My dad had arrived, I think, a few years before that, and he was working as a researcher at [University of California, San Francisco]. He was a biochemist and they met at a sit-in. I think it was primarily school board stuff that was, you know, in transition at that time. And, you know, the rest is history. I was born in San Francisco and grew up there in a very different time. But my childhood was really informed by their activism and their ideas about, you know, what they wanted this future to look like, that they had been involved in shaping. I mean, you know, everything that I understand about that time just makes me imagine that it really felt like, a new world and new kinds of possibilities.


James: Well, that certainly would have been an interesting time for them as well. Let's mention that you are biracial and your father is Black and your mother is Jewish. What was that like growing up in that environment? Was that something that you felt that you were experiencing, maybe not exactly the same childhood that your friends around you were experiencing?


Laura: Well, my dad was from Harlem. I think my parents, you know, were part of this group of young, intellectual, artistic, bohemian people. So it was, you know, a very liberal environment in San Francisco. So there was an element of it that made us different. And, you know, most of the kids in the neighborhood and . . . but I think that we were really supported in feeling that our identity was special and valuable and. . . yeah, just a lot of a lot of love around that.


James: When we were beginning to arrange this interview, you asked if I had your recording of spirituals and Freedom songs, it's called "Some of These Days," after a song by Florence Price, and I do want to hear about your journey of discovering the music of Florence Price, but I'm anxious as well to break the seal on the album and hear something for this Juneteenth. This is by Billy Taylor, called "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free," which must have been on the minds of all the victims of slavery as they wondered if they would ever know . . . but then there was Juneteenth.


Lara: I think my background, of course, has just put me in the center of this question of race and identity and division in America, and we've really since 2008, you know, we've just seen the extremes, I think, of how we can coexist and collaborate and move forward in this country. And that's been intensely personal for me, and I think I've lived it very much ... you know, obviously, just on a personal level, but also through my music, I think I've been trying to achieve some kind of understanding and some kind of ability to comment and to possibly affect, you know, some small kind of change through my musical exploration of race and identity and diversity in American music, which I think is just a really powerful medium for us to tell that story and to understand that story, because it's a place where there are so many connections and so many intersections, you know, and we can really trace the migrations and the social movements and the upheavals of our history through our music. So it's been quite an interesting, you know, 10 years now, 12 years;  as you say, it's been sort of shocking and surprising that we keep stumbling back to the same crossroads.


James: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," I'm sure there are many people out there still wondering that, somewhere in this world. That's music by Billy Taylor and a performance by Lara Downes. Lara, I feel sometimes as though you are a moving target. Your interests are so far ranging, from Bernstein to Schumann, both Robert and Clara, Billie Holiday, and you seem so open to collaborations as well, and I just hope you never stop moving. However, I do sense that you have focused somewhat in recent months on the music of Florence Price. Where did this begin?


Lara: Yeah, well, you know, I first found her music many years ago in an anthology of music by Black women composers. This one piece, her first "Fantasie Negre," I just started playing that piece. Right away it was always, you know, this huge discovery for audiences, and then I guess the next step was when we all learned in 2009 about the discovery in an abandoned house in Illinois of, you know, boxes of manuscripts of her music. And I was always curious about that, of course. And then a few years ago, I was down in Texas actually doing a residency at Southwestern University, and my host, Michael Cooper, who's an eminent musicologist, was really interested in Florence Price as well. And we started talking, and I said, you know, I just [saw] those boxes, which were then down at the University of Arkansas, I said, there's just got to be more piano music in there. I'm so curious. And Michael was curious, too. So he ended up going down to Arkansas and looking through the boxes and finding all of these, you know, torn up, crumpled up pieces of manuscript and just digging in and and starting to edit all of this music, wonderful music. There were two more big fantasies which I've recorded both of and just many, many sort of tone poems and miniatures in such a range of style. And of course, her "Piano Concerto 2," which I played in Boston last year and was supposed to play with the Chicago Symphony this summer, which is one of my saddest losses of this lost season. But Michael just really devoted himself to, you know, sorting through this music, which has now been published by Schirmer. And I went into the studio and recorded, you know, the bulk of it over the last, whatever, six months. And it really has been one of the greatest, you know, discoveries of my career, to find his music, to share the music, to share the story of this really extraordinary woman. And just to you know, there's not a day now that goes by without getting I always I get emails and messages through social media about this music, 'where can I find the sheet music?' And I really just see that, as, you know, such a fast change in the repertoire. If pianists start to pick this up and, you know, we start to hear it in recitals all over the country, all over the world. It's just it's a really gratifying thing to be able to uncover something like this.

James: "Fantasie Negre No. 2" by Florence Price, played by Lara Downes from her latest, a collection of spirituals and freedom songs called "Some of These Days." Lara will be back with more music and more conversation in hour two. This is Juneteenth special edition of CALC on the classical voice of TPR. I'm James Baker. Thanks for listening.


James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.