Pianist and NPR Host Lara Downes to Perform at Skidmore April 14

When you ask an artist as impressive as pianist Lara Downes if there has been a moment in her career when she felt she had officially “made it,” you expect an impressive answer. Maybe “when my recording topped the Billboard chart” or “when the New York Times featured my latest album” or “when I was named 2022 Classical Woman of the Year.” But while all of those things have indeed happened to Downes, who’s performing at Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Center this April 14 and will return to Saratoga with the Philadelphia Orchestra August 4, none of them were her answer. Instead, when asked if she had an “I made it” moment, she said, “No! And I don’t think there ever is. You do your work and you’re really happy when wonderful things happen, but I’ve noticed that the more success I have, the things that give me real gratification are not the applause, approval, recognition—of course it’s so wonderful to have those things—but when I feel that what I’m doing is actually impacting or helping someone else.”

Luckily for Downes, there have been plenty of those moments throughout her career. The homeschooled daughter of a Jamaican father and Jewish mother, Downes moved with her mother and two sisters from San Francisco to Paris in her teens. (Her father passed away when she was young.) The family spent years studying and traveling around Europe, a place where classical music, according to Downes, is much more part of the culture. “I came back here when I was in my early 20s, and realized that the combination of ‘isolated, home-school bubble’ and ‘formative years abroad’ left me without much sense of an American identity,” she says. “My journey with American music really started there—trying to understand where I fit into this tradition, which I think is mostly European, as an American artist and as a woman of color. That really started me on this search into American music: What is it? Who wrote it? Where did it come from?”

That search led her to discover the works of Black composers who in many cases helped shape classical music as we know it today, but aren’t necessarily recognized for having done so. Take Scott Joplin, the turn-of-the-20th-century composer who serves as the inspiration for Downes’ recent album, Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered. “It’s an interesting story because he wasn’t under-appreciated in his time,” Downes says of the musician. “He was very, very famous in his time as the ‘King of Ragtime.’ But at the same time he was also a classical composer and wanted to write operas.” Joplin did write Treemonisha, one of the first operas by a Black American composer, but did not live to see a full production of it. “Of course,” Downes continues, “the doors that were closed to him in his time were closed because of race.”

That Joplin album is just one of a series of albums released under Downes’ Rising Sun Music label that explores the work of Black composers—including Eubie Blake, William Grant Still and Florence Price—and their contributions to the American classical canon, which has historically been dominated by white males. And the iconoclast doesn’t stop there. In addition to highlighting the works of influential composers from the last 200 years, Downes also explores the contributions of contemporary BIPOC artists in her born-from-COVID NPR series, AMPLIFY, which features performances by and conversations with such musicians. Piano Magazine perhaps put Downes’ outsized impact on the world of music (and, frankly, the world in general) best when it called her “a trailblazing pianist who combines exquisite musicality with an acute awareness of how an artist can make a positive and lasting social impact.”

“This is a nice mix of past, present, future and a celebration of what America can be when we do it right,” Lara Downes says of her April 14 performance at Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Center. (Jiyang Chen)

Downes’ April 14 Skidmore performance, she says, will cover the “broad landscape of American music. It’s going to be everything from very familiar things like Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ and Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ to music by Florence Price, who is having a renaissance now but was absolutely unknown until, I’m going to say five years ago by the general public.”

Speaking of Price, the pioneering composer—who in the 1930s became the first female composer of color to have her work performed by a major symphony orchestra—will be the focus of Downes’ performance when she returns to Saratoga with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (This year’s Orchestra residency at SPAC will feature a record number of works by female and BIPOC composers.) At the August 4 show, Downes will also perform “The Strayhorn Concerto,” a brand-new piece of music created just for her from three songs by Billy Strayhorn, a jazz pianist and songwriter known for being a close collaborator of Duke Ellington’s. “The two pieces will be revelations to anyone who hears them,” Downes says. “This will be the opportunity to hear two things that you don’t [normally] hear in the symphony hall.”

And while Downes’ work does indeed focus heavily on BIPOC artists, she hopes that her music brings people of all backgrounds together. “This is a time when people feel really divided,” she says. “Music is a place where we can see where we have crossed paths, where we have given and taken from each other, and where even the difficult and painful parts of our history have produced beautiful things.”

Tickets are currently on sale for Downes’ April 14 performance at Skidmore and August 4 performance at SPAC.

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