California, November 2020
A recording of Paul Simon’s ‘America’
Lara Downes is a pianist with wide-ranging interests, from Bernstein to Bach, from Schumann (Robert and Clara) to Billie Holiday to the more recent re-discovery of composer of Florence Price. She grew up with a Black father and a Jewish mother; she’s a world-class recording artist with European training and an ear for the popular voice.
You can hear more of her moving and expressive playing in her Tiny Desk Concert, from May 30, 2020, where she discusses and shares songs from her new album, Some of These Days.
Lara’s newest project, launched mid-October, is the National Public Radio program, Amplify With Lara Downes. In this series, each video recording opens and closes with Lara’s gentle version of Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace’. Lara offers a space for Black aritsts to come together, to explore their creative worlds and share ‘moments of awakening during this tragic and transformative year’. A child of the civil rights movement, she has always been a champion of human rights and marginalised voices. In this new series she considers, in partnership with other powerful voices, how this year – 2020 – may be ‘a time of reckoning, reimagining and maybe rebirth’.
Connection and isolation
Lara’s first guest in the new series is singer-songwriter, banjo player and MacArthur ‘genius’ – and fellow-trailblazer – Rhiannon Giddens. Lara says of this beautiful conversation between the two friends and ‘soul sisters’: ‘In this year of staying home and standing still, we reflect together on the long miles we’ve traveled so far and what we’ve found on our journeys, envisioning the wide open road ahead.’
The second interview is with Anthony McGill, principal clarinettist of the New York Philharmonic and 2020 Avery Fisher Prize winner, who played a haunting version of ‘America, the Beautiful’ (#TakeTwoKnees) in his living room two days after the killing of George Floyd. in this interview, Lara and Anthony explore ‘the intersection of artistry and activism’ and talk about the idea of the gifts you are given, and the things you give, about the power of the voice, about being an ambassador, about ‘saying something with every note’.
An interview with Lara Downes appears here, when she spoke with Ari Shapiro about creative awakenings during a time of transformation and uncertainty.
A limited-edition recording from June 2020 is here. Of this mix tape, Lara says:
‘I made this mixtape on Saturday June 6, 2020, after a morning of peaceful protest with ~15,000 people at the California State Capitol. After weeks of complete despair, I came home this afternoon feeling hope for real change in America, a reckoning and a rebuilding of something new. I went to the piano and played music that felt right in the moment: Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Paul Simon, Angelica Negron, Florence Price, Kurt Weill, Eve Beglarian… all kinds of American sounds. These are single takes recorded straight to tape, with the sounds of home life running through them – the dog snoring, a car driving by, the late afternoon breeze in the trees, and a few wrong notes. This is my memory of this day when I marched in a beautiful crowd of American people, in solidarity, resolution and the very beginnings of some hope.
For an additional look at Black music as resistance in America, see this special segment on NPR: We Insist: A Century Of Black Music Against State Violence.
Lara Downes’ life has been a blending of traditions, styles, cultures, and genres. Not satisfied with being one of the preeminent pianists of her generation, Lara courageously dons and then sheds labels like “classical” or “eclectic” as freely as she engages audiences of all ages with her charismatic presence, intellectual curiosity, and masterful command of her artistic voice. She wants to create experiences that bring 19th and 20th century traditions firmly into the present for 21st century audiences. She is a trailblazer onstage and off. She is also a writer, a broadcaster, a mentor and a role model who understands that music is a dialogue between artist and audience, as everyday life is a balance between speaking and listening, giving and receiving. Born in San Francisco and raised in Europe, Lara’s interest in connecting music to a wide and inclusive breadth of human experience mines her own mixed African American and Eastern European background and her peripatetic upbringing. She has performed in a diverse range of venues from Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge (NYC) and Yoshi’s (SF), to the club down the street. Her website is here.
“An explorer whose imagination is fired by bringing notice to the underrepresented and forgotten”
“A musical ray of hope”
“A trailblazing pianist who combines exquisite musicality with an acute awareness of how an artist can make a positive and lasting social impact”