Do you think of "doing the right thing" as fun and joyful? Lara Downes does.
In this episode of HearTOGETHER, pianist and podcast host (NPR's Amplify) Lara Downes joins host Tori Marchiony for an intimate conversation about growing up as an American abroad, exploring her identity through music, and expanding the cannon to create a more inclusive and vibrant future for concert music. You'll hear about her youth mentorship series, My Promise Project, her ambitious venture to create new recordings of works by Black composers, Rising Sun, and more.
Music in this episode:
Noel Dior & Tim German, Editorial Council
Teng Chen, Audio Engineer
MUSIC- Billie Holiday, I Cover The Waterfront
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host, Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from the artists and activists working to create a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
The music you heard in the intro was part of the childhood soundtrack of our guest today- pianist Lara Downes. The song, I Cover the Waterfront appears on Lara’s 2015 album honoring Billie Holiday, and is dedicated to her own father, who nurtured her early love of music with regular living room listening sessions of his vast vinyl collection.
Throughout her career, Lara has brought her exquisite talent to a wide range of repertoire - particularly American works- even when doing so was seen as risky by the Euro-centric Establishment. But the risks paid off, both commercially and critically- and she’s now known as one of the foremost players of her generation.
She didn’t stop there- Lara is out to change the consciousness around concert music as well as the content. On her NPR podcast, Amplify, she interviews visionary Black musicians who are shaping the present and future. Through her free workshop series, the My Promise Project, Lara uses Freedom and Protest songs to inspire students to create their own artistic statements of leadership and activism. And this past February, she launched Rising Sun, a hub for new recordings of works by Black composers.
All that to say, Lara Downes is a woman on a mission and a multi-hyphenate to the extreme.
LARA DOWNES: I know that if I had stuck to the original plan and I was, you know, traveling around and playing nice polite recitals and nice polite dresses, I would feel miserable and trapped.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Lara has been playing the piano since age 4. Her parents - an Ohio-born lawyer of Eastern European Jewish extraction and a biochemist from Harlem by way of Jamaica- weren’t themselves musically gifted, but they encouraged Lara and her two sisters to indulge their creativity. The couple, who had met in activist circles in 1960s San Francisco, homeschooled their daughters and nurtured their curiosity- but it wasn’t a utopian upbringing. When Lara was 5, her dad got sick. He battled for four years, then passed when Lara was 9.
After that, Mrs. Downes, understandably, wanted a change of scenery. So she packed up her three daughters- two pianists and a cellist- and moved to Paris. The girls traveled Europe, performing as a trio, and studying in various conservatories.
Music itself was home.
LARA DOWNES: We kind of clung to music because of the chaos in, in life. You know, I think that when I look back when my dad got sick and you know, everything was just very sad and very uprooted. I mean, what better thing as a kid than to have this thing that you do for several hours every day that you actually love and it's your safe place and you can just shut out everything else and be in it. So who knows, you know, if things have been better at home, maybe giving it up at 12, like everyone else.
TORI MARCHIONY:: Yeah. Right. Wow. Yeah. Was there, um, was there any like child star component of it, like where you guys was, it was like performing about you guys loving it and that's what you do when you love it or was it like, this is helping us pay the bills and there's pressure on you to do it.
LARA DOWNES: Okay. I think my mom was just a really bad stage mother, honestly. Like she didn't, she didn't push us in that sense. And I mean, one thing my mom did that I think was smart was that like, if we did babysitting or, you know, we had like a little concert or something, or we got money from a competition that went back into the lessons. So it was like, this is something important and valuable and we all want it to happen.
It was pretty healthy. It wasn't like any of the, you know, we weren't really pushed, I think any stress was self-imposed. It can be a very stressful environment, especially when you get to that stage where you're constantly doing the competitions and yeah. The competition, the level of competition within the conservatory system is pretty toxic.
TORI MARCHIONY: [inaudible] yeah. It's funny. I feel like there are parents who have to really push their kids and then there are the parents who maybe have to hold their kids back a little bit.
LARA DOWNES: I remember every time something didn't work out and if I didn't win a competition, my mom would always ask me, you know, do you love doing this? Like, I can see that you're very sad today, but do you love doing this? And the answer was always yes. And I think to her credit, if I had said, no, we would have my, I would have been that.
TORI MARCHIONY:: That's so important because, and that like native joy to it is still so clear in your, your playing and your practice as a musician today. I think that's so awesome. way to go, mom. Um, and okay, So take me back to when you're living in Europe and the reason that you're exotic is for your Americanness. How did you feel you were perceived in Europe and then how were you perceived differently back in the U.S.?
LARA DOWNES: So it was, it was complicated and it was almost self-contradictory because in Europe I felt for the first time at home, like in classical music, my first that was the first time that there was an environment that was welcoming, that was normalized where it was a normal thing to do. And I wasn't a total weirdo for doing it, but at the same time, right. All these other things came into play. So I was very much othered, um, in so many other ways. Um, I think I was still a very good little girl and I was doing my studies in Europe and I wasn't actively questioning anything, but at the seeds of questioning were, you know, starting to take root. And as you can imagine, that was as traditional of a system of an attitude as one could find. I mean, this is long enough ago that my teachers were of a generation that's gone now. That was probably what, like three generations removed from, you know, composers I was studying. So the typical answer to why, why anything was because like, either because I said so, or because that's how we do it, or, you know, there was just no inquiry. There was no spirit of inquiry and I'm a very curious person.
Yeah. I'm so curious about that because I- weren't you homeschooled before you went into these conservatory settings, weren't your parents all about like challenged the man. So how did how'd you end up such a good little girl?
Well, maybe because that was the first time that I was in sort of a structured, rigid, rigid environment. So I think, I felt like, I guess this is how things are now, you know, and yeah, it was a departure, although I will say that even the homeschooling, I would say that music, the experience of living, of learning music, sorry, I keep stammering so much. The experience of learning music was different than the learning of everything else. The learning of everything else was so self guided and somewhat haphazard. And so I was learning, you know, what I wanted to know by just picking a book off the shelf. Whereas of course, in classical music from the very beginning, there are rules unstructured. So I don't know how my brain just, it kind of straddled those two places, but I think in Europe, I just, maybe I realized that that was the limitation of this art form that I love that no one seemed to have very good answers for me about why we do things or how, or, you know, with what intention it was just, well, this is the tradition. This is how it's always been now, it's your turn, keep going.
TORI MARCHIONY:: Um, how did your Americanness feel to you in those years? Like when you say they saw you as the American, what did that mean? What connotations did that have? And how did that affect how you saw yourself and your nation?
I mean, my sisters and I was almost like a circus act. It was like the three American down sisters, awful. And I remember really clearly that the place where it felt very disrespected to be an American was exactly in the music. You know, there was always in every audition competition, putting together sort of recital programs. There was usually a requirement for something that was a 20th century piece that was supposed to be modern, 20th century. So, um, I always had this impulse to play something American and I would ask my teachers and a, they didn't know the repertoire and B they would, you know, just sort of laugh off things like Gershwin or Copeland as being very commercial and not serious and not, um, highbrow. So I don't know, you know, at, at the same time in Europe, I think still, maybe less now there was, of course it's glamorous to being American.
MUSIC - On gossamer wings, Benny Golsom
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was On Gossamer Wings by Benny Golson, from Lara Downes’ second album American Ballads, which was ranked by Amazon.com among the four best recordings of American music ever made. Remember when I said her chutzpah paid off?
TORI MARCHIONY: So I have heard from some Black folks who’ve traveled abroad that there is a sense of relief to being categorized as simply American, and that some of the racial baggage they experience at home kind of slips off. How did your experience of race change when you came back across the pond?
And I mean, I think that's what made the next chapter so intense for me. I mean, you see me, I'm hard to pinpoint anyway. And, um, so then, you know, when I came back here and I realized that it was way more complicated, it was a shock.
I know you came back when you were 21, but why did you decide to make the move without your family to, to come back?
You know, I'd been yeah. At home with my mom and sisters, my whole life. And I don't know, it's, it's hard to look back and understand what drove you, but I just had this feeling, you know, that I had to get out. And then there was a boy and, you know,
TORI MARCHIONY: Hey, fair enough when you're 20. Right. So once you were back in the U.S., how was your racial identity reflected back to you? Cause it sounds like there some internal self-discovery and also some realizations that came from seeing what others were reflecting back to you. Is that accurate?
LARA DOWNES: Totally. So where I moved back to with Berkeley, California, and two things happened, I mean, from one thing, when I left, I was a girl still and I came back and I was a young woman. And so I was, you know, walking around by myself, on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland and sort of experiencing the response to that and who was responding and how, and that immediately clarified some things. And then in Berkeley, I was with this group of like, um, how do we describe this? Um, you know, intellectual young people who had, who felt really free to talk about race with me, but from a place of whiteness. So there are these unending conversations about ethnicity and like what my role was as a biracial person, but I wasn't there yet. And I realized that I'd been so protected from it, you know, first by the bubble of my family and then by the bubble of being in Europe and then the bubble, honestly, of just being immersed in this weird 19th-century world.
So, I think it was just trying to understand how it is that the world could see me in so many different ways. So I really, I felt alone. I felt unprepared and I felt like I had to figure something out. And, um, yeah, so to find out for myself, I guess how I could express what really at the time, I mean, it just felt like confusion. It didn't feel like anything else. It didn't actually feel like identity. It felt like confusion, but so how can I understand this confusion? How can I put some shape to this confusion is maybe by just figuring out how to express the different parts that are jumbled, and, um, music was the way to do that.
MUSIC: FLORENCE PRICE, SOME OF THESE DAYS
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was Laura Downes playing Some of These Days by Florence Price...a composer whose name you’ve heard quite a bit on this podcast already. Price is definitely having a “moment”, and is becoming a kind of retrospective IT- Girl of the 2020s. Lara was way ahead of the trend.
LARA DOWNES: I had pitched a Florence price recording to one of the labels two years ago. Yeah. And they didn't think that there was enough interest. So I just did it myself.
TORI MARCHIONY:: Like the mix of like I freaking told you, so, and I'm really glad she's getting her do. It's probably really strong.
LARA DOWNES: Yeah. I mean, there's a feeling though, right? I have to say, when you have been doing this work, I mean, that's been the point all along is to open up this world and bring people in. So it is incredibly gratifying. I mean, I'm sad that it took racial violence and, you know, sort of this national reckoning, um, to make this happen. I kind of wish it hadn't gone that way because now I think that this music is being imbued with the weight of a lot of stuff. Um, but if, if it opens the door, I think fine, we just have to, um, come to a healthy understanding of what this music is and, and why it's here and why we why it belongs to us.
I want, I really want that authenticity to be, you know, present in all of what we're doing. Um, and I have one sort of major concern or goal, which is I I'm seeing, I'm probably answering more than what you asked, but I think it's, it's really related. Um, I think we've gone very, very quickly from, you know, the little cannon over here to Florence price and everything else over here. And there is a gap and I, I think what the next thing I need to do is to fill in the gap and explain, tell the story of American music.
TORI MARCHIONY: Um, let's talk about Rising Sun because it's so cool and doing so much awesome stuff. And, um, I would, I would also love, well, we'll get there so first yeah. Tell me about rising sun and cause that launched like February of, of, yeah, so yeah,
LARA DOWNES: You know, the, my journey with music by Black composers started 15 years ago, Florence price, and then, you know, all the rabbit holes and I've taken the approach of connecting it with other music. You know, it's integrating it into the wide tradition and sort of opening up that tradition and saying, this is here and this makes these other things sort of like look different and that's been really important to me and really effective, but at the same time as the work has gone on, and the pile of what I know has gotten higher, I've realized, yes, this is part of an American tradition and it's a tradition on its own. And the story that really needs to shift for all the reasons that we're talking about is that story of exceptionalism, you know, there was a person called Florence price and she did a thing and there was a person called William grits still, and he did a thing or a few things. Um, and once you see that all of these lives and all this music, they're all connected. I mean, these people knew each other and taught each other and collaborated with each other and, you know, pass on the tradition. Then I started wanting to create some sort of a hub for this music. So I wrote a grant to the Sphinx organization in the fall. And my original proposal was to record 20 pieces of music by Black composers that have not yet been recorded. Also. That was also, um, sort of along by a talk that I gave for the public radio program directors group last year, talking about diversity in programming and, you know, the overwhelming response was we really want to change the sound of classical radio. We don't have the recordings to do that, which is totally fair and totally true. So I was like, okay, I know someone who can do that for you. So I wrote this grant, I got the grant I started. Um, and then I was like gonna wait until the spring. And instead I went, so we've been releasing every month and EPA have four or five tracks pieces of music that haven't been recorded before, or that have been sort of archivally, you know, recorded that need high quality, fresh recordings. That’s A lot. Yeah. Um, And it's been so fun and it's been, I mean, it's been tremendously hard work. And this morning I was just like sending new tracks to my producer who has infinite patience. But yeah, I mean, I never would have imagined that this would be such an immersive experience and yeah, the timing is interesting and weird. Um, but I'm all in it's, it's just, I mean, there's so much music to discover so much
TORI MARCHIONY:: And it's such, it's so powerful to see you in real time, shifting the cannon, like, like you say to exponentially increase, what is available is so powerful, especially in a genre that suffers from this idea of being dead, right. That you are making it as alive as could be, which I think is so cool. Yeah.
LARA DOWNES: That's, you know, that's the thing, that's the conflict in my head right now is that I feel like on the one hand, this work, this effort as focus is being perceived as some sort of like social justice activism thing. And instead what it's doing is making this art form that we all worry about day in and day out. It's making it come alive. It's making it have relevance to a whole other universe of people. So I just want, I want to focus on the joyfulness of that. Not the, like you have to do this because it's important. And we said, we'd do it in hashtag, you know, it's like,
TORI MARCHIONY:: Totally, it's not like the "eating your vegetables". It's actually like, this is dessert. Like we get to enjoy.
LARA DOWNES: No, I even have to do it in myself, you know, just because all this is happening really fast. Like I'm always on some sort of a deadline and it's fine, you know, and there is of course messaging around it always. And then there are these moments when I just sit back and like, I literally listened to what I'm playing at the piano and I'm like, oh my God, this is just so beautiful. There's this piece by William Grant still that I play every time you give me a chance it's called Summerland. And I swear to you, it's the most beautiful piece that I have played ever. It's just exquisite. And yeah. So they're just these moments kind of like, wonder mint. How did we not know with this?
MUSIC: Summerland, William Grant Still
TORI MARCHIONY: I'm curious if music ever felt too small for you, I'm thinking about the pandemic and like, did music make you feel small or, or large? Does that make sense?
LARA DOWNES: Yeah, no, it does. I mean, my simple answer is that music this year has felt me, has made me feel huge because the doors have been flung open. Right. So even though it was frustrating and strange to, you know, channel your creativity through the computer screen, it also is so exciting to me that the world was the audience now, but I didn't have to have assumptions about who was listening. I mean, I couldn't have assumptions about who was listening. Um, that changed the way that I felt empowered to communicate, I think, and it really encouraged me to want to hold on to that openness when we do go back and, you know, behind closed doors, like who's in that room. And how do we define that? I think it's a very important time for, you know, to re-imagine that reach.
TORI MARCHIONY: Speaking of re-imagining, that brings us to the promise project. What’s the deal with that and how has it shifted since COVID?
LARA DOWNES: So, um, this is a project that originated from a collaboration that I have with the poet Rita dove, who just has her new book out. It's so magnificent. Um, but there's a poem called testimonial and there's a phrase in the poem that says, I gave my promise to the world and the world followed me here. And I don't know, you know, these are just like words that stick in your head. And I started working with young people and this was right around 2016. This was right. You know, in the months around the 2016 election, um, I started working with young people in this environment of mm doubt, fear division and all the things and encouraging this kind of self-inquiry about what is the thing, what is this little thing that I have inside that, you know, can hold me up and I can give, and it can hold the world up. And I mean, I realized that it was an essential question for me, because what I had when from the time I was four years old, was this talent to play the piano. Right. So that's the promise or the gift that I had, but it took me a lifetime to understand how to apply that and how to make it actually valuable for myself and others. And so, you know, just putting that in the minds and hands of really young people, it's very powerful. They say to me always, you know, no one asks us who we are. They ask us, like, what do we want to be when we grow up? Which is an absurd question.
TORI MARCHIONY: The worst question ever.
LARA DOWNES: And then, right. Yeah. Um, but I think, you know, really important for kids, especially in the kind of time that we're living and in the difficult circumstances that a lot of these kids are living to find that thing, hold on to that thing, like, you know, feed and water, that thing and know that because you, um, I don't know, you can have a big dream and you can do a small thing every day. You know, kids are kids, right. So they say, well, my promise is it's to save the planet, save the environment. And I'm like, cool. So how could you do that now? Cause you don't have to wait until you grow up and you be the president to do that. Right. Like, let's go pick up some trash in the park. Um, and it's great. And it gives, you know, empowerment and like kind of just joy in being here and a lot. So yeah, that's been really, um, affirming for me and during COVID I had big plans to do all kinds of residencies all around the country. And instead of course we were on zoom and um, yeah, those conversations were really healing. You know, even what can you do right now in your mind now that you're trapped in, you know, your house all year, what can you do in your mind that can keep you going and kind of be your promise to the world?
MUSIC: Nora’s Dance, Nora Holt
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was Lara Downes playing Nora’s Dance by Nora Douglas Holt- a classical composer, pianist, blues singer, radio personality, magazine editor, educator, activist, socialite, jet setter, and bona fide muse of the Harlem Renaissance.
Tragically, more than 200 of Nora’s compositions were lost when her storage unit was robbed while she was away on an extended European tour following her 5th divorce. Nora’s Dance only survived because it had been published in a magazine (that she’d founded, no less!) called Music and Poetry.
And I only know about it because of Lara.
TORI MARCHIONY: You have been very consistent in this work for 15 years at this point, and I’m wondering if there’s any sense of frustration that the rest of the world just seems to be catching up. Like, “oh NOW you’re interested, you’re a bunch of fake friends”.
LARA DOWNES: it is such a fascinating time. I think I'm in a very unique position because all of this action has been very swift. Um, I think there's a whole lot of confusion. Every level. I think that institutions are confused about how to do it. Um, they know they need to do it. I think audiences are confused about why it's being done. I look at my colleagues and there's such a range of feeling of, um, excitement, but also tokenism and also distrust. And, you know, also just like tiredness, you know, like this is too much too fast, but I've, but I put myself intentionally here at your, you know, 15 years. Yeah. I've been doing this. So I don't, I can't even say that. I feel like this huge difference in, you know, my moving in the world this year. It's, it's, it's more perceiving that yeah, everything else is kind of like coming to the same place. It's also been really beautiful to see some of my colleagues step into the potential of, you know, putting your own meaning behind your work. I mean, this is what's surfaced on the NPR show conversations with other musicians is that yeah. This training, this industry is confining in some ways. And I think maybe the people who are the most other feel the most pressure to like, just get in line, that's easy to do. So this environment, this kind of pause, this kind of just examining it, everything we're doing, I've I really loved seeing my colleagues just investigate that and yeah. Grow up really fast.
TORI MARCHIONY:: Mmm. What have you observed in how the commissioning of new works is being framed, of late?
LARA DOWNES: Well, honestly, I mean, I've come across a lot of feelings from my composer colleagues this year, because I mean, on the one hand, your phone's ringing every day and that's great. And on the other hand, I think the problem is this putting together of big social justice issues and, and artistic expression. And I know that, you know, there are composers who would like to write music that is free of that burden. Um, for me, my piece of this, my, my motivation to commission new work and to record works by living composers really doesn't have to do with the outside world. Like seeing that this exists, it has to do with the next generation and, you know, just having the next, yeah, the, the young kids are coming up who want to write music or play music, just look at this whole body of work and say, oh cool. Like I can do this. I can just jump in and be in this. And that I think will make a big difference in our world, in our field and our future
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Wow, what an amazing conversation with Lara Downes. Thank you so much for tuning in to the HearTOGETHER Podcast. I’m Tori Marchiony, and we’ll be back next month with more conversations about music, social justice and all the life in between. In the meantime, check out some bonus content from this episode, where Lara talks about Performative Activism, and why we shouldn’t refer to composers as “marginalized”.
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Now here’s Lara Downes performing Love Will Find a Way by Eubie Blake, for Rising Sun.