Playing with Purpose

World-renowned pianist Lara Downes releases her latest album with social justice on her mind.
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lara downes

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Lara Downes and her two younger sisters were homeschooled in their beachfront home in San Francisco by parents who were immersed in the civil rights movement and its freedom songs. They were suspicious of bureaucracies and state systems, of regimented curricula and one-size-fits-all approaches to education.

Their method was essentially anything goes, with creativity to be nurtured at all costs. They played music nonstop (there were three pianos in the house, one in the living room, another in a bedroom, a third in the basement), read from the piles of books that filled their living areas, and wrote and performed their own plays. There must have been more than an element of “Little Women” to their upbringing.

“We really were very close,” says Downes. “There was no choice. There was a lot of homegrown creativity. I’d write, direct and star in plays. But I’d only write the beginning, and after that there was nothing planned.” She laughs, remembering the sometimes-painful ad-libbing that would follow. She also started writing her version of operas, including one modeled after “Charlotte’s Web” when she was 6 or 7 years old.

lara downes

But it wasn’t all happy. Her father, a jazz-obsessed research biochemist born in Jamaica and raised in New York, got ill when she was 5, and for the next four years, until he died, the house was, in her words “centered around a sickbed.” As a result, music became for her not just a source of pleasure but a vital refuge. It was how the children got to interact with a world outside of sickness and stress.

“We were with other kids in the conservatory on Saturday all day,” Downes recalls. “And the orchestra, also on weekends. By the time I was 10, I was practicing three hours a day.”

It would only get more intense from then on. Decades later, Downes says that she remembers these years in memory fragments, with most of those revolving around music.

young lara playing piano

In the early 1980s, shortly after her father died, her mother, an Ohio-born civil rights attorney, moved the family to Paris from San Francisco. She wanted, Downes now surmises, a dramatic change of scene, a way of putting the pain of the recent past behind them. The family arranged a house swap with a family in the City of Lights, packed up their possessions and headed to Europe. It was originally only supposed to be for a few months, but they stayed for years.

From Paris, the Downes sisters—Lara a pianist of prodigious talent, her middle sister a cellist, her youngest also a pianist—were outfitted by their mother in matching dresses and sent off to perform in some of the world’s most fabled concert halls: Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s South Bank Centre; Vienna’s Konzerthaus; La Salle Gaveau in Paris; courtly venues in Budapest and Prague in the dying days of Communism. They were like the child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, toured around Europe’s capitals by his father to perform before amazed audiences, or perhaps like the von Trapp siblings in “The Sound of Music.”

Now, more than 30 years later, Lara Downes is sitting in the living room of her Land Park home, talking about her eventful life. Her beautiful grand piano, framed by the latticed front windows, is off to her right; her husband, Rick Grosberg, a distinguished professor of evolutionary biology at UC Davis, is sitting at a desk, working on his computer one room over. He’s used to being asked what it’s like to live in a house filled with music, but he says it’s about much more than the music. It’s about living with someone “who’s always striving to cross boundaries—of her own and of the world she places her art in. I hear a lot of music, but also a lot of struggle and effort to make the world a better place, to build communities. She’s always exploring new ways of doing things.”

lara and dad

This month (April), Sony Masterworks is releasing Downes’ latest album, “Some of These Days.” It is a gorgeous, lyrical album, built around old spiritual and civil rights songs, every track chosen with an eye to the fight for human rights and social justice in America.

In the notes that accompany her CD, Downes explicitly links the themes from the album to the moral struggles of today—around the detention of child immigrants, rising racial tensions and so on. “We have to pick up where our parents left off; keep working and trying, keep our eyes on the prize of freedom and justice for all,” she writes. She will, over the coming months, be performing concerts based around pieces from her album at Mondavi Center in Davis, where she is an artist in residence, and in Sacramento, in September, at The Sofia performing arts center, as well as in several other towns around Northern California. She hopes to use the music to raise money for organizations working to defend human rights.

She is about to start work with the Sacramento Philharmonic on an educational project intended to bring young artists from around the country to town to train not just in music but in engaging with—and bringing music to—local communities. She also is readying herself for a national tour that will take her to New York, Chicago and many other cities.

lara with music

Downes, 46, is one of Sacramento’s most exciting classical music presences. She has a magnetic stage persona, a combination of deeply engaging and glamorous. She loves looking for chic vintage pieces in Sacramento’s myriad thrift stores, wears her wavy hair just below shoulder-length, and sports a wispy, almost nostalgic, dreamy smile and facial expression when she talks about her music.

On a concert stage, she says, she feels enveloped by the music that she plays, and she’s intuitively aware of how her audience is reacting. “Different rooms have different feelings,” she says. On a good night, “it’s entirely possible that people start breathing together when they’re in that music moment. People physically lean in toward each other. Pulses synchronize. Breathing synchronizes. The cumulative effect is something you really do feel.”

 

Like the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, one of her musical heroes and the subject of her 2018 tribute album “For Lenny,” Downes thrives in not only playing before an audience but in engaging with them. She rarely just sits down to perform at the piano cold, but usually talks with audience members about the works that she is performing, getting into conversations about the purpose of the music and the lives of the composers. As she sees it, “I really want, if you’re in the room with me, for you to get it, to understand the story I’m trying to tell.”

The storytelling impulse has served Downes well. Throughout the past quarter century, first in New York City—where she moved as a young adult after leaving Europe in the early 1990s—and then in California, she has built up an extraordinary body of recordings, almost an archeological deep-dig into America’s past. Her first album, “American Ballads,” was a survey of New Deal-era music. “I realized there were all the complex undercurrents and complexities about race that I’d never really confronted before,” she says. “I started reinvestigating music and where the music I cared about came from, connecting with the jazz tradition and investigating American music and all the pieces of it.”

lara and young artists

Increasingly, as a biracial woman in modern-day America, she grew dissatisfied with a narrow vision of classical music in which, as she puts it, “everyone was from the 18th or 19th century, had a beard and died of syphilis. The case for American music had to be different.”

In recent years, as her two children have reached their teens and become more independent, Downes has only increased her pace, and her curiosity about the wellsprings of American music has grown deeper. She is, says her husband, “the most extraordinary force of nature I have ever met. There’s a deep humanity and compassion and empathy she brings to everything she does. ‘Enlightening,’ too, would be another word to describe her. She’s never dull.”

Although Downes is Mondavi Center’s artist in residence, her work life does not revolve solely around Davis. At least once a month, she says, she flies to the East Coast. She mentors young musicians around the country. She also raises money for local causes here in Sacramento. Last year, for example, she held a benefit concert for a local group, Women’s Empowerment, that helps homeless women rebuild their lives, at Guild Theater in Oak Park. Downes played pieces from her album “Holes in the Sky”—highlighting American female musicians—and showed film footage of interviews with some of the organization’s clients. “The concert was such a gift for them,” says Women’s Empowerment executive director Lisa Culp. “It was a new cultural experience, one they spoke about for days and days afterward. She (Downes) is comfortable with everybody, because music is a universal language.”

lara downes cap public radio shirt

But it is in the realm of recording where Downes lately has been particularly active. In the past four years alone she has released “America Again,” an album based on the words and moral vision of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes; “For Lenny”; “Holes in the Sky”; a best-selling recording of Clara Schumann’s intensely romantic piano music titled “For Love of You”; and now, “Some of These Days.” This latest includes an extraordinary song in which she juxtaposes her piano playing against a somewhat scratchy 1939 recording, which she discovered during research in the Library of Congress, of African-American women, imprisoned in the South in the 1930s, singing about the pain of being separated from their children. “There’s something so ghostly and haunted about the recording,” she says quietly, explaining why she was so drawn to it. “You start thinking about the layers of imprisonment. You listen to the text of that song and immediately, of course, you go to family separation that is happening today. That’s the recurrent theme. Spirituals are always about despair and hope at the same time, repression and freedom at the same time. It makes them timeless.”

These albums, along with the many concerts that she performs around the world each year, have been written up in a slew of prestige publications. National Public Radio described Downes’ “smoldering reimagining” of spirituals in her “America Again” album and noted that one of her jazzier pieces “swings with cocksure virtuosity.” The Boston Globe has labeled her music “a balm for a country riven by disunion.”

The pianist and educator is, at heart, a genre bender. Classically trained at some of the world’s top academies, she plays not only from the canon but also excels in finding lost music from female composers such as the African-American midcentury composer Florence Price. She dips into jazz, spirituals and gospel. She has performed and recorded a remarkable reimagining of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She has collated the music of exiled composers across continents and centuries into “Exiles Café.” On May 7, she will perform at Mondavi Center with longtime activist and musician Judy Collins, who has been singing folk songs and spirituals about social justice since the early 1960s.

“I feel there’s a lot I can do,” Downes says of her ongoing efforts, both educationally and through performances, to bring music to as many people as possible, especially in the town she now considers home. “My overall mission to ensure this musical tradition rightfully belongs to all communities and parts of society is something I want to play out in Sacramento. It’s such a diverse, multilayered community and represents all the pieces of my own story as a Californian, a person of diverse heritage. There’s something about this city and the way it sees itself that inspires me.”

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