Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony can be a tongue twister, especially if you read those words on air. But Lara Downes, the new party host on Los Angeles classical music station KUSC-FM (91.5), wasn’t fazed one recent night when she saw it as the next track on the list. of reading. It was, she told herself, nothing she couldn’t bear.
Then she continued to read the copy. The recording was by – wait for it – the Cincinnati Symphony.
“I literally cracked up on air,” she laughs. “It was too much.”
Downes is a world-class pianist who performs regularly across the country, including performing at Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood. She makes recordings, including a well-received new album of music by Scott Joplin, and founded Rising Sun Music, a recording series that elevates both the music and stories of black composers throughout history.
Like Leonard Bernstein, a major inspiration, Downes has long been interested in both telling stories through music and telling stories. on the music. After four weeks on the air in an acting capacity, she has now been officially appointed to the role after former host Jim Svejda retired after 43 years.
“Evening Music With Lara Downes,” which runs from 8 p.m. to midnight weeknights, has a rigorous commitment to diversity; in it, Downes is keen to weave in works by women and composers of color. Like his many recordings, Downes’ playlists include music by American composers as an integral part of his program, not just as occasional garnish or curiosity. The emphasis reflects an approach she has taken since the early days of her career, an approach that has been shaped by her upbringing.
Downes discussed her formative experiences in this edited interview, where she called from the Sacramento home she shares with her husband, who teaches evolutionary biology at UC Davis.
You grew up in San Francisco, where your parents — your late father, a Jamaican-born biochemistry researcher, and your mother, a Jewish lawyer from Eastern Europe — met at a sit-down. -in the school board. You and your two younger sisters were homeschooled, and I guess music played a big part in your upbringing. How old were you when you started on the keyboard?
I was intensely drawn to the instrument from the start. I was 3 years old when I started playing and 4 years old when I started formal musical training.
We had three pianos at home because my sisters and I were supposed to practice. One of the pianos was in the living room. Mom came by all the time, so it wasn’t ideal. The second was in a guest bedroom. It was my favorite because you could close the door and read a book while you practiced, which I did frequently. The third piano was in the basement, which was scary. We were supposed to take turns, but there was always the option of bribing or blackmailing another sister into swapping with you.
When you were a teenager, your family moved to Europe and you stayed there to study music for almost a decade. What was it like coming home after so many years abroad?
When I was just out of school and back in this country, I had an epiphany. I went to see this exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York called “The American Century”. It was a retrospective of the 20th century in America, and it was done in a multidisciplinary way. You would encounter, say, a painting by Edward Hopper and a piece of music from the same era, as well as what was happening in politics and society at that time. All of a sudden I saw how all these things were connected. This provided me with both clarity and enthusiasm. I wanted to tell stories through the conservation of music. That’s basically what I’ve been doing ever since.
In the beginning, this desire had a lot to do with identity for me. Being a mixed-race person, being homeschooled and therefore somewhat isolated, and then spending my formative years in Europe, I had no idea what it meant to be an American. I was trying to figure out where I fit in here – and especially where I fit in as a musician. At first it was an inner quest. I then started to express what I was learning about my identity through music.
It looks like you learned a lot in Europe, but you also felt that something was missing.
My teachers literally only knew three or four American composers: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and maybe Samuel Barber. When I came back here, one of the first questions I asked myself was, “Were all American composers white men? It seemed unlikely. I found a compilation in a library [“Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music”]. It included the first “Fantasy” by Florence Price, which I started playing right away.
Once that door opened, I started wondering what else was there. It was the start of a long journey, which I am still on. I discover an immense musical wealth of composers of color. By doing this work, I help tell the story of American music, where it comes from and who owns it.
KUSC listeners might not realize that you started doing this show just over a year ago on its sister station KDFC in San Francisco. How did it happen?
They came to me with the idea of being a resident artist for the radio group. I remember being asked if this was something I would ever consider, and before I knew it, what came out of my mouth was, “Sure. When I grow up, I want to be Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein leveraged many different platforms to reach as many people as possible and draw them into his overflowing love of music. So the idea of using every medium we know of to communicate and invite people is really exciting to me.
How do you choose the pieces to play and their place in the program?
I think a radio show, like an album, has to create a sound universe. Each show is an emotional journey with troughs and waves. I work with the musical directors of both stations, who have been great – really collaborative with my vision to expand the repertoire. We start with a core of music that’s already loved, and then we expand on it. It’s our way of welcoming people into new experiences. One of my favorite things is pairing up unlikely bedfellows who share a common vision or inspiration.
Have you ever played one of your own recordings in the series?
Sometimes, but not too much. There’s a lot of music by black composers or female composers where the only recordings are mine. So I do not put myself forward but rather a piece of music that fascinates me.
Making records largely comprised of little-known music isn’t exactly a traditional career path. Adding the job of a radio host to your already busy schedule as a touring musician is also not the case.
My career choices have always been a bit risky and a bit offbeat. But they’ve all been completely authentic, and I think that’s the key to the success I’ve had. So I’m not going to pretend to be a DJ. I’m just gonna be myself.