ArtsWatch Interview: Pianist Lara Downes

The innovative Bay Area pianist talks about modernizing classical music and more

Interview by Jana Hanchett

Bay Area pianist Lara Downes, who performs two concerts in Portland this weekend, spoke to ArtsWatch’s Jana Hanchett about her new album, the challenges facing classical music, her entrepreneurial approach to them, and, among other things, how Portland audiences compare to those in New York and elsewhere.

Jana Hanchett: How did you find the Korngold Sonata, and how has your perception of it changed through the year of learning/recording/performing it?

Lara Downes: I found the Korngold Sonata many years ago, as part of my research for a performance project focusing on the composers who fled Hitler’s Europe for Hollywood in the ‘30s. I didn’t learn the Sonata at the time, but it was sitting in the “To Do” pile on my piano, and I was so thrilled to be able to highlight it within the Exiles’ Café project. It’s a magnificent work, both very much of its time, and also timeless in its emotional and musical power. Over this year of living with the piece, I’ve dug deeper into the human story behind the music, into Korngold’s life and the moment in time in which he wrote his music. It’s been a tremendous pleasure and gift to get to know his granddaughter Katy Korngold, as well as several writers and musicians who have been central to the revival of Korngold’s work. My recording of the complete Sonata on the Steinway label is just about to come out as a single, and I’m very pleased to be bringing this monumental work out into the world!

Photo courtesy of Lara Downes.

Photo courtesy of Lara Downes.

Which composer on your “Exiles’ Café” album do you most identify with and why?

There are many personal resonances for me with these composers. The experience of being an exile is one that is familiar to me, for several reasons – my childhood and adolescence were spent in somewhat isolated circumstances that made me feel always out of place, both at home in California where I grew up, and then later in Europe where my family lived for many years – out of place there in the sense of all expatriates or students abroad, yet suddenly very “at home” in having been transplanted to the place where a musical culture was so much more relevant and native to the place where I was living! These composers’ stories of exile range from tragic to adventurous, some brought about by external factors, some sought out due to personal or political impulses. They all tap into universal of experiences of desire, loss and longing. I find areas of my own experience and emotions throughout, maybe most of all in a piece by William Grant Still, called “Africa, Land of Romance.” It’s a fantasy inspired by an unknown and unknowable homeland, a profound expression of the longing felt by those who live in a permanent diaspora, for a home never known.

What prevents classical newbies from enjoying classical music, and what are some ways you bring them into the fold?

Wow, so many things. First of all, a $75 ticket, for a lot of people. The mean lady who glares at you if your seat squeaks. Boring concerts. Lazy marketing. In short, the practice that has been in place for some time of selling classical music to the already initiated and making it quite unfriendly  to the novice. Thankfully all of that is changing very fast.

I’m glad to be part of a generation of musicians who are totally aware of the need to reach out in a genuine, active way to wider audiences, to connect with listeners, and to educate in the real sense of the word, to make sure that what we do has relevance to the real world we live in. Something I’m very proud of is the work I do to further that goal, and the recognition and appreciation I find coming from my audiences for that effort.

What trajectories do you find most fascinating in contemporary classical music right now?

I guess the spirit of exploration and flexibility that exists among musicians. There’s a tremendous amount of crossing between genres and traditions, in an honest, un-self-conscious way, a willingness to take risks, and a desire to bring our tradition firmly into the present. A great example is my friend Chris O’Riley, who has been a pioneer in the blending of genres with his concert transcriptions of Radiohead and other pop music. Chris says that the young people he presents on his radio show From the Top feel totally comfortable with this same genre-crossing that he has developed, take it absolutely for granted, and that they may not even realize that he’s the one who developed it! Which is to say that change is happening fast, within a generation, and that the ideas and practices of my generation are having really quick, strong impacts on the future. It’s kind of great to see that.

I also think that the growing presence of artist/presenters is a very important and positive development. Many of my friends are directing concert series and festivals, with a curatorial sense that is honed from life on the stage. I’ve been doing a good bit of curating in my position as Artist in Residence at the Mondavi Center here in California, and now I also have an Artistic Directorship of a new series I’m starting later this month in San Francisco: The Artist Sessions at Yoshi’s. It’s another way for artists to take charge of the future and to contribute what we’ve learned as performers to the design of programming, the influencing of tastes and trends, and the development of new audiences.

What role does the composer-to-performer relationship play in developing new music?  

Well, obviously it’s a critical one in keeping the entire concert tradition moving forward. The practice of playing music that’s primarily by dead composers is, after all, a very short-lived one, really only within the very late 19th and the 20th centuries. So to have a repertoire that balances the canon and new works seems to me to be essential to the health of a musician! I love working with composers in a collaborative partnership. I’ve been so fortunate to develop really strong musical and personal friendships with some phenomenally talented composers, and the dialogue that is created in these working partnerships is something so precious. I think that for me, especially, because I’m sort of a storyteller at heart and through my music, my work with composers helps me to bring musical narratives to life in very wonderful ways.

For example, last year I commissioned a new work from David Sanford that was inspired by Duke Ellington, and David and I spent a wonderful year together exploring issues of our own heritage, the history of civil rights in America, the relationship between the classical and jazz traditions, among other things, and we emerged with an exquisite piece of music! My new project, “Exiles’ Café,” has brought me into a great friendship with the very young composer Mohammed Fairouz, who is doing absolutely extraordinary things, and we’re working together now on several commissioning projects.

What audience/composer/venue differences have you discovered between the big cities you perform in?

Well, audiences generally reflect the culture of their cities. New York audiences are super-informed, choosy as they can afford to be, but also very supportive of their city’s status as an artistic capitol. LA audiences are hip and flexible. Audiences at the Kennedy Center in DC get dressed up and the women wear furs! Portland is, of course, and happily so, a big piano town, thanks to Portland Piano International’s long and proud history. Portland audiences are also weird (!) and irreverent and curious, and I think this city is a great place for new and exciting programming. Elsewhere: my friend Zuill Bailey runs a chamber music festival in El Paso, Texas, and he has built that town into one of the most vibrant classical music audiences I’ve ever seen, with concert halls full of young people, families, ethnically mixed crowds…. I played last year in Spokane and found a ridiculously wonderful audience full of composers, music students, serious music-lovers

What catalyzed the creation of your record label Tritone, and what are some common challenges a classical musician-as-entrepreneur faces today?

I put three records out on the Tritone label, and it has been a great learning curve and challenge well met. My first two recordings were made on a NYC-based label which went under as so many did in the mid-2000s, and I found myself in 2005 wanting to make a record, but not really wanting to go through a long process of shopping the project around to another label. So I just raised a little money, recorded the album and really enjoyed the feeling of artistic control and direction that I acquired in the process. In 2011 I put out “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” on Tritone, and the success of that record was so gratifying. I learned so much.

The experience of self-producing and marketing a few records is very much supporting me now as a good partner with the Steinway Records label, where I’m signed now. The understanding of the bigger picture is very valuable. I was awfully naïve when I made my first records, and I don’t think I had much of an understanding of the proactive role an artist can take in supporting his/her own music. Granted I was about 12 years old at the time!

This is all part and parcel of being a classical musician-as-entrepreneur, as you put it. I always say that I feel grateful to have grown up in a generation that has faced the absolute end of an era. My teachers watched the structures they knew and relied on falling apart, in terms of government support for the arts, the recording industry, the dwindling (or changing as I prefer to see it) audience for concert music. Their gloom and doom informed us early on that if we wanted to make a life in music, we would have to actually make one, not just wait for one to happen. So we are out there on the front lines, directing our own projects, creating our own concert series and festivals, producing our own recordings, forming collaborations, and most of all making an audience for what we do. I think that, despite the challenges, this is right and good.

I work so hard, and sometimes the lines between the necessary and the extraordinary efforts are blurred. My work bleeds into all aspects of my life, and that is sometimes hard for my peace of mind, my family life, and my sleep cycles! Sometimes I am exhausted, and sometimes I think that it would be nice to do a job in which one didn’t feel obligated to do something amazing every single day! But for the most part this life is so exhilarating, and the ability to lead a life that is centered on doing something you love, something very beautiful, something that helps other people find joy, and something that truly does makes the world a better place – it’s just an incredible privilege.

Where does your artistic energy come from, and how do you maintain it?

Curiosity, above all, I think – the desire to understand the world, the human condition, the big, unsolvable questions, through the language I know best which is the language of music. For me, everything I want to know and to express finds its way to some form of musical translation. I find musical connections everywhere and those connections inspire me in my own performance and recording projects, my curatorial/ presenting work, and my research and writing.

I love that you play from your iPad.  How often do you play from memory vs. playing from score and what’s your philosophy regarding this Liszt-old debate?’

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The Liszt-old debate is, again, in the bigger picture of history, a very short one, and it’s kind of bizarre that what first developed as a sort of a parlor trick has been accepted as standard practice, for a while at least. Mainly, I think that the kind of performance that many of us are doing now is pretty unsuited to playing by memory. We’re playing multiple programs all the time – moving from program to program in city to city, often in the span of a couple of days. We’re using a different kind of mental focus in concerts that are integrating the practices of speaking to the audience, sometimes reading related texts, multimedia, etc. We’re not working anymore in the format in which an artist would tour all year with one or two recital programs, so a repertoire of maybe 12 or 15 pieces per season (or beyond), and an interface with audiences that involved solely playing those pieces, bowing, and going back to the green room! So the ability to relate to the printed page in real time, to make spontaneous choices, and to allow for a broader focus, is critical.

I think that the technological advances to support these changes are happening in perfect timing. Playing from digital scores is just easy, convenient, and aesthetically lovely. I’ve loved switching over. My only problem is that my kids believe that the Ipad belongs to them, and I’ve had a reminder about expiring credits for one of their games pop up on my screen in the middle of a concert! That, and there is a certain temptation to obsessively check email and Facebook when you are using the same device for practicing!

I also really appreciate your music videos, or trailers, for your albums. How do you combat the argument that visual elements distract from ‘serious’ listening?

Ugh. Back in the concert hall with that mean lady. The reality is that there is no aspect of our life now that is not a multi-input experience. The integration of our sensory inputs is central in forming our emotional responses. Even in our quietest moments, we are usually experiencing inputs on many levels. Think about walking in a secluded forest, and experiencing the calls of birds and rustling of leaves, along with your visual experience of the landscape. I think that visual elements can help to provide context and narrative to music, and in my case, the music is often very story-based in inspiration and conception, so it makes sense to support it with imagery, for example in the case of “Exiles’ Café.” And unless you’re going to listen to music with your eyes closed, you’re going to be seeing something, so why not something that is created and designed specifically to enhance your experience?

Of course it’s a delicate balance, and too much is too much. I like to play around with visual imagery, both in music videos and as backdrop to live performance, in a way that provides a frame for the music without overwhelming it. I think this is another opportunity to modernize the concert experience, to make our time in the concert hall more relevant to the world outside it.

What gave/gives you confidence in your own musical voice?

Growing up! Life experience. The process of coming of age as a musician is a difficult, multi-layered one. As a very young person, I never had much of an understanding of how I was positively perceived by my teachers and my peers – happily so, because I never developed any cockiness. I was always looking up, to my teachers, to the great artists I heard on the concert stage, and to all the generations of performers and composers before them. I just felt that there was this incredible pantheon of musicians to admire and to learn from. It was really only much later that I felt that I might have a voice to add to that chorus, and to understand what was unique about my own perspectives and ideas. That’s as it should be, I think.

As much as I struggled with insecurities and complexes in my youth, I think it was much better to have that humility than to be overconfident and to then be taken down a notch by life, as does happen! And I think that putting together a full life, building a family, building a very self-directed career with many facets, has given me more and more confidence, or trust, in my abilities. Back to the question of curiosity – it’s my curiosity that drives me, and I’ve learned now that my curiosity usually takes me in good directions!

How do you like to practice?

The best day is a day when I can go to the piano first thing in the morning and know that I have the full day ahead for practicing, and the evening for my family.

Space is limited for Lara Downes’s “Exiles’ Café” concert on Saturday, April 13 at Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave. Portland, OR 97202. Reserve tickets by contacting Peggie Zackery at 503.546.5622 or; tickets are $15 adults, $10 students.

The all-Korngold concert on Sunday, April 14, is at Eliot Hall Chapel, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland, OR 97202. Tickets are $15, in advance or at the door. However, anyone can get a ticket for $8 by following Downes on all her social media accounts: FacebookTumblr, and Twitter. Bring your smartphone with you the day of the concert to get this discount.

Portland pianist Jana Hanchett writes about classical music for Oregon ArtsWatch.

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