“Hey, do you want to go out to the symphony tonight?!”
“I sure do, I LOVE symphonic music! What are they playing?”
“It’s a program of American classical music!”
“… oh.”

It has been nearly a century now since Aaron Copland returned from his studies in France to attempt a grand fusion of American lyrical elements with European classical traditions, and in that fruitful eight score of years American composers have interwoven modern insights with historical melodies to craft a vast body of compelling and challenging music.  From Price to Cage and Bernstein to Babbitt, an imposing pantheon of composers have lifted American classical music from the imitative dregs of the nineteenth century to a living and vibrant experimentation that stands firmly in the world’s musical vanguard.  Yet looking at the American concert scene, that boisterous sense of experimentation and firm pride is nowhere to be seen – take a random program from 1919 and one from 2019 and one would be hard pressed to tell which is which, so little is the last century of American development programmed or requested.

Having internalized the condescension of early critics, we have become ashamed of our own music, and to protect ourselves from ridicule, have convinced ourselves that it is boring and somehow beneath our notice.  We belittle it, and avoid it, even (and perhaps especially) if we haven’t listened to much of it.  It takes a rare musical artist to stand up in front of that knee-jerk scorn, that shame-born indifference, and declare, “There is beauty here, let me show you,” but for the last two decades that is precisely what pianist Lara Downes has done.  

With her talent she could have crafted for herself a safe and lucrative career as an interpreter of the standard European canon – offering up Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff concerti to a public that knows what it likes and will happily pay for the sound of it.  But from her first album she set herself a distinct challenge, charting at the age of twenty a mission to make her records acts of discovery rather than exercises in familiarity, opening new worlds to those listeners who had the musical curiosity to follow her.  I asked her whether she felt trepidation about following such a risky path at a young age…

Lara Downes: I do remember that going into my first recording projects, it was suggested to me that I might want to do an all (fill-in-the-blank) composer CD, for the simple reason that back in those distant days there were record stores with bins in them, and the bins were labeled by composer. And if your CD didn’t have a composer’s name on the front it would go in the Miscellaneous Bin, which was not a desirable outcome! But at the time, that seemed actually very counter-intuitive. Why would I, at 20 years old, feel that I had a definitive statement to make about, say, the Chopin Preludes? Or any other body of work from the core piano repertoire that has already been performed and recorded thousands of times? I think, somewhat subconsciously, I wanted to expand my perspective and imagination as much as possible, as part of my growing-up process. Building all of these complex musical collages over the years, finding buried treasures, being fluid with genre and style – that’s all given me a different/deeper relationship to the traditional classical repertoire.

In her first recordings, Downes presented Argentinian dances (Invitation to the Dance (2000)), piano repertoire from American composer Samuel Barber, a piano reduction of a Virgil Thomson film score (American Ballads (2001)), and thematic albums that collected little heard musical ruminations about dreams and nocturnes.  True to her mission, her third album, Dream With Me (2006), featured pieces by American composers Dan Coleman, Adam Silverman, and Aaron Jay Kernis, the oldest of whom was 46 at the time, and the youngest 32.  If it is risky to present American music as the central element of your record, it is near madness to present American music that isn’t by Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, or Ives, but Downes’s sense that classical music is a living and ongoing enterprise which needs championing if it is to survive is a powerful and infectious one, and one she remains faithful to still.

Music as a healing act connecting past to present and person to person, this is what Lara Downes offers us, and given her inspirations it’s not hard to see why.

One of the most compelling things about Downes’s vision is her idea of music as a gathering space, one in which we as listeners enter to find a common humanity through a sharing of musical difference, a difference that she believes is captured uniquely well in the obscure recesses of the American classical canon.  She shared with me a beautiful story of the unifying power of this music in the hallowed concert hall space…

Lara Downes: I truly, deeply believe that some of the most profound connections in American life/culture/history exist in our music. And obviously the reason for that is exactly because the music represents all of us, and it represents the places where our stories and journeys collide and overlap. I feel like that shared space is so important, especially now. It’s a safe space. We are all feeling very overwhelmed, I think, by the differences among us that seem insurmountable and non-negotiable. And I probably can’t heal those divisions single-handedly, but I can use my work to insistently show the places where we come together, our common roots and common ground. I’m feeling how deeply that message is needed. 

Probably the rawest encounter I’ve ever had in the concert hall happened on the night after the 2016 election. I’d traveled all day from California to Louisville, KY, to play a recital from my album America Again. I was feeling pretty emotional that night – we all were. And it felt so urgent to share this music by American composers who come from every corner of the cultural landscape – black, white, gay, straight, male, female, born here and come from away… At the end of the concert we did a talk-back, and a young man in the front row raised his hand and said: “My family is undocumented, and I want to tell you that tonight you made us feel that we matter here.” Another gentleman, a few rows back, said, “My wife wants me to tell you”—because she was crying and she couldn’t speak—“that your music sounds like hope.” And I started crying too. Can you imagine? Strangers on a night like that, when the whole country was in a state of confusion, able to open up and be vulnerable, and connect in the shared space that music provides.

Music as a healing act connecting past to present and person to person, this is what Lara Downes offers us, and given her inspirations it’s not hard to see why.  One of her personal slogans is, “What Would Lenny Do?” a reference to the educational and social vision for music promulgated by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the mid Twentieth Century.  For Bernstein, classical music wasn’t something to be consumed ritualistically by a privileged few in a concert hall, but something that had to burst out, into the schools and the community centers, and change lives.  If you are given the gift of being able to make music, you do it, for whoever might benefit from its unique powers.  Downes, who gives freely of her time in order to share music with auditoriums of school children, embodies one of her favorite Bernstein’s quotes, “The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. … It can affect people so that they are changed… because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”

Through her piano, she has reached into the past and given voice to underrepresented communities, making us feel their stories through sound.

Part of that mission is where you play, and the other part is what you play, and in her last few albums Downes has stretched the representation of her albums further than even her daring first records.  In 2019, she put together a successful album of music entirely by women composers, Holes in the Sky, featuring an array of familiar names (Florence Price, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell) amongst a sea of talented composers one sees all too rarely on major label releases.  Through her piano, she has reached into the past and given voice to underrepresented communities, making us feel their stories through sound.  

An artist’s life is filled with difficult decisions and enticing temptations – to follow the assured path, hoping that, towards its end, one can leverage one’s fame into presenting those out-of-the-way gems that fired your love of music in the first place, or to strike out on one’s own, without any foreknowledge that anyone will follow you, into the tangled woods of forgotten repertoire, and present those pieces that we as listeners have yet to learn to love, but which tell us deep tales of who we are and might be.  It takes artistry, passion, and most decidedly a greater than average amount of courage to follow that second path, but those who do gift the world something truly special.  Their work thickens the web of connection that binds us to our past and to each other.  From Lenny, to Lara, to whoever has the spirit to carry their torch into an uncertain future, where there is music, there is hope, and something more than hope, community.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s tough to choose between Downes’s roughly dozen albums.  Judging by my ipod history, my go-to albums seem to be American Ballads (2001), Dream of Me (2006), America Again (2016), and Holes in the Sky (2019).  Truth be told, for years and years I was the Oh person from the opening lines above – I couldn’t find my way to an appreciation of what the American classical music tradition had to offer beyond the electronic and avant garde threads that interested me.  I saw it as a mixture of half hoe-down tunes with plastered on jazz elements, and half intellectually fascinating experimentation, but never considered it as something beautiful or viscerally compelling in the way that, say, Beethoven is.  One of the great delights in my life is being wrong about something, and it is through the music of Downes that I have found myself proven so thoroughly wrong about what my own country’s musical tradition consists of, and the first three of those albums played a leading role in my re-education.  I’d also say that her collections For Lenny (2018), a compilation of music written for Bernstein and by Bernstein for others, is a beautiful idea for an album that shows the intimate side of musicians’ love and respect for each other, while 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined (2011) is a delicious catalogue of composers adding their own inspiration to Bach’s classic Goldberg Variations.  Most recently, For Love of You: Clara and Robert Schumann (2019) highlights the too little performed work of Clara Schumann to capture musically the moment when she struck out from under her father’s authority to make her own way with her tragic fiancé, Robert.  And, if that’s not enough, her next album will be a Florence Price compilation, coming in 2020, so keep your ears peeled!

FOR RIGHT NOW: While you’re waiting for those cd’s to arrive or those albums to download, here is a recording that wonderfully captures the concert space that Lara Downes creates live:

And here is the music video to Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island, a piano duet with Simone Dinnerstein:

And just for fun, here’s a recording of Phantoms by Amy Beach (whom we have yet to feature on this column, but don’t worry, we’re getting there) at what was probably a really cool event:

Lead Photo: Lara Downes by Jiyang Chen, published on Women You Should Know with the express permission of Lara Downes

Get to know more trailblazing Women In Music in Dale’s column.