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Lara Downes: a classical pianist creates 21st-century opportunities

By Brett Campbell
April 10, 2013

By Jana Hanchett

While the stodgy classical world bemoans its diminishing cultural relevance, Lara Downes is embracing the 21st century. “I feel grateful to have grown up in a generation that has faced the absolute end of an era,” the Bay Area-based pianist says.

Downes sees the end of one era as the beginning of the next, and she uses contemporary technological savvy to create a welcoming space for classical music in today’s culture. Her website is far user-friendlier than many classical sites, and her blog offers her own probing interviews with other pianists and insightful experiences. Downes also provides easy access to her music by posting her music trailers on YouTube and offering her albums on Spotify. In concert, she often uses a Bluetooth-enabled pedal to turn the score pages on her iPad, rather than employing an old school paper score.


Giving herself the freedom to play from the score instead of from memory provides a common-sense solution to the challenges of contemporary times.

“We’re not working anymore in an age in which an artist tours all year with one or two recital programs, a repertoire of maybe 12 or 15 pieces per season (or beyond), and an interface with audiences that involves solely playing those pieces, bowing, and going back to the green room!” Downes explains. “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. 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!”

You can see Downes’s attitude – and iPad – in action twice this weekend. On Saturday, April 13 at 7:30pm, Classic Pianos hosts Downes’ new Steinway-label debut recording “Exiles‘ Café.” A cozy cheese, pastry and wine reception follows. Then on Sunday, April 14 at 4 pm, Reed College presents Downes’ “Between Two Worlds: Music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.” The concert features a conversation with Kathrin Korngold Hubbard, Korngold’s granddaughter. John Hubbard, the husband of Korngold’s granddaughter, joins Downes on cello.

The connections Downes creates between classical music and the modern world promote necessary discussions. Downes’ CD cover for her “Exiles’ Cafe” sparked intense debate on classical music authority Greg Sandow’s blog; the stodgies and the modern art lovers went head-to-head on defining authentic, appealing artistry. Downes jumps right into these conversations and disarms everyone with her honesty and wit.

Exploring Exiles

Downes’ relevance to 21st-century audiences stems not just from her authentic use of the common technological language, but also from her thoughtful pianism, so evident in her most recent album “Exiles’ Café.”  The problem of exile spans centuries, and on the CD, which explores lesser-known works by composers like Chopin, Milhaud, Bartok, and Weill who were forced to leave their homeland and wander the world, Downes provides fresh insights by including works by contemporary composers. “I think that for me, especially, because at heart I’m a storyteller through my music, my work with composers helps me to bring musical narratives to life in very wonderful ways. ‘Exiles’ 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.”

Downes’s contemporary approach to classical music extends beyond performing and commissioning new music, and using modern means to bring it to listeners. She’s also finding new ways to reach new audiences for her music. Downes recently created a new series in San Francisco called The Artist Sessions at Yoshi’s that enables dialogue between audiences and musicians who are on the cutting-edge of creating and performing compelling, classical music. “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,” she says.

That take-charge attitude is why Downes, like the exiled composers she admires, has been able to convert challenges – in her case, the changes rocking the classical music field – into opportunities, and explains her gratitude at having entered the field at the outset of a new era. “My teachers watched the structures they knew and relied on fall 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,” she recalls. “Their doom and gloom 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.”

See Jana Hatchett’s complete interview with Lara Downes.

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 peggie@classicportland.com; 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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