Lara Downes is the queen of classical music in California.
Every weeknight from 8 p.m. to midnight, Downes hosts a show that can be heard in the Bay Area on 90.3 FM KDFC, in Southern California on KUSC, and online from anywhere in the world. “Evening Music with Lara Downes” debuted just over a year ago, and Downes has used her platform to expose listeners accustomed to standard classical fare — concertos and sonatas by predominantly white, male and female composers. Europeans – to more pieces of women and people of color.
It’s a personal mission for Downes, who is black and Jewish and lives in Sacramento. And it’s the one she pursues not only as a radio host, but also as a professional pianist, with a catalog of 17 albums and counting. His latest, “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered”, pays homage to the African-American composer known as the “king of ragtime”.
“Unfortunately, classical music can get very exclusive,” Downes told J. in a recent Zoom interview. “Traditionally, you hear it if you walk into a concert hall, which means you can afford the ticket and the time and have the urge, like you have the culture behind you. And there’s also this idea that you can’t appreciate it unless you really understand it.
Her goal, she said, is to “open those doors” through her radio show and a variety of other projects, including a video series for NPR Music that spotlights black musicians and a digital label, Rising Sun Music, which she created to release new recordings of pieces written by black composers over the past 200 years. She also maintains a busy concert schedule. On May 6, Downes will perform pieces by Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad, among others, at the Mondavi Center on the UC Davis campus.
The daughter of a white Jewish mother and a Jamaican American father, Downes spent much of her childhood in San Francisco and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El. Her father, a scientist who converted to Judaism, died of cancer when she was 9 years old. “At that time, the temple had really become a kind of extended family for us, and was really just a kind of anchor space,” she said.
Downes began playing the piano at age 3, and by age 8 she was studying with Adolph Baller, an Austrian pianist who taught music at Stanford for 31 years and performed in duets with famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Baller’s life experiences – he survived the Holocaust, but Nazi soldiers crushed his hands when they learned he was a pianist – taught him “that music is more than entertainment, that it can to be a lifeline,” she said.
When she was around 10, her mother began taking her to the Jewish Home of San Francisco (now the SF Campus for Jewish Living) to perform for its elderly residents, including Holocaust survivors. “Back then, it was like a scary place with these very old people who had funny accents, right?” she remembers. “My mum wasn’t a stage mum, but the focus was always on using music for social good. It was, if it’s something that’s really central to your life , then you have to share it.
Downes’ mother homeschooled her with her two younger sisters, Shana and Avi (“it was this post-60s idealism about the best ways to do things”), and Downes admitted the arrangement was somewhat random. “But for me, it served me well,” she said, because it gave her the freedom to read and practice however she wanted.
On a commentary track at the end of “Reflections,” she recounts how her mother brought the girls to the Castro Theater to see double features on weekday afternoons. “The Sting,” the 1973 hug starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford with a soundtrack full of Scott Joplin rags, left a particularly strong impression on young Lara.
“When I think back now to that afternoon spent at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, I see my little girl myself, bathed in the glow of a giant movie screen, falling in love with Joplin’s music because, d in a way, she reflected me,” she says on the album. “Somehow his music showed me the contradictions and conflicts that come with being a multi-faceted musician.”
Born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1867 or 1868, Joplin practiced piano among the white people whose homes his mother cleaned. His first piano teacher, as Downes notes on his scrapbook, was a Jewish immigrant from Germany (Julius Weiss). Although Joplin played a key role in the development of ragtime – a ‘tattered’, syncopated form of music that anticipated jazz – and wrote such classics as ‘The Entertainer’ and ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, he never was never able to escape the stigma attached to it. to the music of both whites and blacks. Moreover, he was bad with money and he died poor around the age of 50.
“The Sting” sparked renewed interest in Joplin’s work, and his crowning achievement – an opera called “Treemonisha” – was properly staged in the 1970s. He was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his contributions to American music.
With “Reflections” and her performances of Joplin’s music, Downes said she aims to evoke a “mixed emotion of familiarity and discovery” in listeners. “I think most people really only know this track, ‘The Entertainer’, and its name. And so telling the story was such an eye-opener for so many people.
A few days before the interview with J., Downes hosted a Passover seder at her Sacramento home with her husband, a professor of evolutionary biology and ecology at UC Davis. His mother and niece were also present. “It was strange to have Passover when there is a war,” she said, referring to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The seder “had so much real-life relevance.”
Threads of exile and diaspora run through Downes’ work and life. His 2013 album “Exiles’ Café” included music from the 19th and 20th centuries by composers who found themselves unable to return to their home countries for a variety of reasons, including German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazis in 1933. Downes herself led what she described as a “gypsy existence” after her family decamped to Europe following her father’s death. She has lived in Paris, Vienna and parts of Italy, studying and performing along the way.
Yet she also showed a deep interest and appreciation for American classical music. In 2018, she released “For Lenny” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom she considers a personal hero. “I think what has always fascinated me is not just his ability to communicate across so many different mediums, but also his insistence on doing so and always pushing the boundaries,” she said.
Judy McAlpine, president of the listener-funded nonprofit USC Radio Group (which includes KDFC and KUSC), called Downes “one of the great ambassadors of American classical music.” Mark Steinmetz, vice president of content for the organization, said in an email that she “brings joy, positivity, empathy and interest in what it means to listen to music classic in new ways”. His radio show reaches about 140,000 people a week, according to McAlpine.
We are delighted to announce @LaraDownes joins KDFC as our very first resident artist – and starting Monday, March 8, she will be the new host of ‘Evening Music with Lara Downes’, weeknights at 8pm PT.
For more information visit https://t.co/GFeTA7kbDk pic.twitter.com/chrMT6aLja
— Classic KDFC (@ClassicalKDFC) February 24, 2021
On a recent episode of “Evening Music with Lara Downes,” she presented pieces from classic heavyweights — Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky — in her soothing voice. She also included music by Grazyna Bacewicz (whom she described as “a pioneering artist who paved the way for female composers in Poland and around the world”) and Austrian Maria Theresia von Paradis, as well as black British pianist Alexis Ffrench.
“Music serves a larger purpose,” she told J., “and it’s a purpose that has to do with education and social justice, kindness, compassion, communication and social justice. ’empathy.”