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Looking through a musical kaleidoscope with pianist Lara Downes

Lara Downes
Lara Downes

Ahead of her appearance with the South Carolina Philharmonic on Saturday for a concert marking the centennial of Rhapsody in Blue, Downes reflects on the scope and legacy of George Gershwin's most iconic work.

In this Sonatas & Soundscapes interview that aired Thursday, February 22nd, pianist and NPR host Lara Downes joins Bradley Fuller to share about two works she’s performing alongside the South Carolina Philharmonic on Saturday: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and A Lovesome Thing: Billy Strayhorn Suite, arranged by Chris Walden. Downes offers perspective on these works and insights into her emphasis on music by American composers.

More information about her performance on Saturday can be found on the SC Philharmonic website.

The South Carolina Philharmonic is a financial supporter of South Carolina Public Radio.


FULLER: Lara, wonderful to be speaking with you.

DOWNES: Same, thanks for having me.

FULLER: Your albums have been a go-to for me in producing my own show from America Again to Holes in the Sky, Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered, and Love At Last—each of them of course with a different focus, but all of them showcase American composers. How did you come to focus on American repertoire so much?

DOWNES: I think it was mostly just a search for, you know, my own identity, my own place as an American artist. I grew up in California, but by the time I was in my early teens my family had left, so most of the advanced part of my studying was done overseas in Europe.

And so, you know, on the one hand I had this really beautifully immersive, tradition-bound education, and on the other hand I really didn't learn much at all about American music because it just wasn't the priority, it wasn't the focus, it wasn't the culture.

And when I came back here and started thinking about a career and what was going to be important to me, I don't know, I just had this very deep curiosity about American music. And I guess when I started learning about it I realized how much there was to learn.

And I also realized how important it could be for me as an artist and also for my audiences, because I think that the story of American music tells our story just as well or maybe better than most anything else.

FULLER: Was there a particular piece or composer, maybe, that really flipped the switch for you or was it kind of a gradual happening, this appreciation of American music?

DOWNES: I think there were some pivotal points along the way. I think one thing that really shifted the narrative for me was to discover—and I use that word carefully, but for me it was a discovery because I had no idea throughout my education—was to discover that there had been composers of color in this history of American music.

That just changed so much in terms of what I could understand about where the music sits in our history and the stories that it connects, the reason it sounds the way it does, and also just made it clear to me that there aren't really hard lines between any of the genres of American music.

That you've got classical music bumping up against jazz bumping up against folk traditions. And so that again set me down this path of just really wanting to understand how it all fits together.

FULLER: Well, this absence of hard lines that you mention—it comes through so often in your work. In the recordings that we've mentioned, in your hosting of the Amplify series—wonderful conversations with artists from so many different backgrounds and music traditions—and also I think it's certainly going to come through in a work you’re performing this weekend here in South Carolina, a famous kind of classical-meets-jazz work in George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. Now, I know you're no stranger to Rhapsody In Blue but will this be your first time playing it here in South Carolina?

DOWNES: It will. Yes, in fact. I’m excited.

FULLER: Well, welcome to South Carolina if I may say that on behalf of the whole state [laughter]. You know, Gershwin, he told his biographer a pretty famous assessment of composition that he heard it as a sort of “musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, our unduplicated national pep, our metropolitan madness.”

Now, that's quite a lot in that description. Do you hear it that same way that the Gershwin heard it?

DOWNES: Yeah, I mean you know that that is, in fact, what connects me the most strongly to the piece is that vision, that mission that he expressed so beautifully. I mean I think that that's just so beautifully put, and especially in the context of his time.

In 1924, you know, all of those things were very fresh. The “metropolitan madness”—you know American cities were just coming into themselves. And if you look at all the streams of migration and the changes in technology and the speed of travel, the possibility of travel—you just you have to imagine this world where people are encountering each other for the very first time. And all these sounds are coming together.

I mean, these are things that we take for granted by now. You know, we take for granted, if you think about it, that we're going to walk down the street and, consciously are not, we're going to hear all kinds of, well, just noise, but also music.

Most of the time I think we're hearing music and we're not even aware of it. You know it's from a passing car, or from an open window, or from somebody's phone, or whatever it is.

Our world is so noisy and I think that if you think about an American city like New York City 100 years ago that that kind of proximity to other people was new.

That kind of ability to encounter different cultures and different traditions was so new. And so for him those are words of awakening, I think, when he calls the piece the “musical kaleidoscope” of America.

Christine DiPasquale

FULLER: I'm also thinking about the form of the rhapsody itself. It’s kind of one of the most free of all forms—it's almost not a form, say, in the way of like a Sonata or you know certain other kinds of classical music where you have a very strict set of expectations about what should happen when. But there's this freedom in the rhapsody. It’s a “stitching together” I think, to use the original Greek word for it. Do you do you find that this was just the perfect kind of piece for Gershwin's project?

DOWNES: Yeah, I don’t see how he could have done anything else. I mean, I think he had so many ideas, and they’re bumping up against each other, too. And he’s letting them do that. You know, there are these distinct themes, but they come and they go.

And of course I think everyone is probably most familiar with that beautiful love theme in roughly the middle of the piece, but there are themes that reflect that kind of technology, that Industrial Revolution, you know. There's a sound of a train.

There’s a theme that’s inspired by a train. There are themes that are inspired by the kind of music-making that he's encountering exactly through his ability to hear the music of Black artists like Willie “The Lion” Smith. There’s this stride piano influence.

There are so many different things. And yes, so I think if he had tried to confine them within straight lines or within boxes, the piece wouldn't have been what it is.

Also, it's worth remembering, too, how quickly he wrote this piece, you know, so there's always that. And I think there's equal parts energy and enthusiasm and just like the speed of the writing of it, too, which is what brought it into that form.

FULLER: I think there's something very American about flying by the seat of your pants sometimes.

DOWNES: You know what Leonard Bernstein said—Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve greatness, you need two things: an idea and not quite enough time.

FULLER: Yes, that’s very well said [laughter] The “procrastination monster” or however else it’s been framed. Well, speaking of reframing you recently collaborated with the Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón and you took Rhapsody In Blue—or he did—and reimagined it. Can you tell me a bit about this project, as well?

DOWNES: Yeah, well, when I became aware of the centenary coming up, you know it just gave me a chance to really think about what does matter the most to me about this piece.

And as we've been discussing this vision that he had—that Gershwin had—of the “musical kaleidoscope,” the “melting pot,” his embrace of that and his championing of that—that's so meaningful to me. And 100 years is a long time in terms of the history of our country.

A lot has changed, and so I started thinking about, well, what was the melting pot in 1924? What is the melting pot now? And, you know, one of the things about Gershwin is that he died so young. So he got a lot of work done but he didn't get to see very many decades of progress of 20th century America.

And I was just starting to think what would he make of this? What would he make of this reality of ours? I mean the whole world has come to this country in the last 100 years--these waves of immigration.

I love to do projects that connect the past and the present and possibly the future. And I’d worked with Edmar a couple of years ago in Boston at the Boston Pops and heard an arrangement that he had done of Duke Ellington's Caravan, where he had really brought that piece back to its roots which are in Puerto Rico. Ellington co-wrote that song with a Puerto Rican musician.

So Edmar had kind of amplified the ideas of that piece by bringing in Afro-Caribbean percussion and expanding the source material. And I thought that would be just a really fascinating thing to do with the rhapsody.

I think the other thing that I hear in in the rhapsody—as I said it's the newness of things, the newness of all these sounds that Gershwin is trying to translate in a way that…you know, I relate to this a lot.

He’s hearing something. He's trying to translate it to present it in a form that can fit within—whatever we want to call it—but, you know, a classical shape. And he's trying to notate it in the ways that he knows. So the idea to let those ideas of his, those inspirations, the source material in this piece really have its own chance to shine, to come to the foreground—that was the origin of the project with Edmar.

So his version has a lot of percussion, a lot of that Afro-Caribbean percussion that Gershwin would have heard—these rhythms from Africa, from the Caribbean, from Latin America—the things that he was trying to harness in the rhapsody. And also other things that kind of bring the piece forward to 2024 with sounds that have come into our consciousness since Gershwin hasn't been here anymore.

FULLER: Well I can attest that for quite a few of our listeners that your performance of Colón’s reimagining really went over well and they were just thrilled to have that now in their musical listening, to have that as another recording, another take to expand their horizons.

DOWNES: Yeah, that's so nice to hear. You know, when a new project like this is out in the world, who knows who it’s reaching and who's having what kind of response? It's just always really nice to hear from listeners.

FULLER: Another special project of yours is A Lovesome Thing: Billy Strayhorn Suite, and you're also bringing this to the South Carolina Philharmonic—this arrangement of Chris Walden's. How did this project come into being?

DOWNES: Right, so that was the same concert when I met Edmar. That was a concert with the Pops in Boston that was focused on the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn—their friendship, their collaboration, and the places where they informed each other.

So, the Pops and the Philadelphia Orchestra and South Carolina co-commissioned the Strayhorn Suite for me, and it's made up of three of his songs. For me the inspiration there was that Billy Strayhorn, you know, as a young man his great wish, his dream was to be a classical pianist. In the very early part of the 20th century for a young Black man growing up in Pittsburgh that wasn't so much of an option.

He started writing and he started moving more into the jazz space and then, of course, when he met Ellington his fate was sealed and that partnership produced so much music that belongs to the Great American Songbook and the jazz tradition.

So three of his songs are chosen to make up this suite: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “That Strange Feeling,” and “Something to Live For.” They're all beautiful songs, and, for me, to take his music and take it back to this symphonic space where he really longed to be present just felt like a really beautiful tribute to his music, to the lyricism that's in his music, and also to his relationship with the world of classical music and the symphonic tradition.

It’s really beautiful. I’m really happy to be bringing it there.

FULLER: You have a very busy schedule, not just with your live performances, but the recording projects we've mentioned, your hosting of Amplify, so many other endeavors and advocacy work that you have going on.

What's next for you after Saturday's performance either in terms of maybe, you know, smaller projects and appearances, or maybe some really big goals you have for this coming year?

DOWNES: Let's see…I fly from there to New York and am working on a couple of residencies there. We are planning a huge concert this summer in July in Brooklyn Bridge Park where we'll play the new the new arrangement of the Gershwin and bring in some really fantastic American artists who represent all different kinds of genres and traditions.

It's going to be a concert for voter registration and it'll be held outdoors in Brooklyn Bridge Park overlooking the Statue of Liberty, so, you know, really connecting with Gershwin’s history as a New Yorker and celebrating also the 100th anniversary of WNYC in New York and the role of radio in bringing people together and allowing them to experience music wherever they are. I’m really excited about that.

That's a big project.

And I've got an album that I need to finish which will have the Gershwin as its heart. It's called This Land and it's coming out in the fall, with other pieces of American music that also speak to this idea of the kaleidoscope and the melting pot and what that has been and what it is now and what it will be in the future.

I have next month also a project I love a lot with the Philip Glass etudes for piano. I was just part of that project last month in New York at Lincoln Center. It's a group of us and we divide up the 20 etudes for piano and all of us bring our own takes to that. And we’re taking that to LA to Disney Hall in March.

I don't know—a lot’s going on. I just I just follow along on my calendar and see what's next. [laughter]

FULLER: Well I was actually going to ask you how you keep everything straight, how you balance all of this. But it sounds like, at least for some of the things you mentioned—the Brooklyn Bridge concert— that some of these opportunities you're really putting all of your interests and passions kind of into one event, and you're not necessarily isolating yourself, but each performance, or appearance, or whatever activity you're in, you're really approaching it as a whole artist.

DOWNES: I hope so. You know, it's taken me a while. I do a lot of different things. I mean, I'm just coming off of the premiere—the world premiere—of another concerto that was written for me that I just played over the weekend.

And I think for a long time it felt like I was doing a lot of things and they were maybe disconnected—you know, the new commissions, and also doing this kind of work of excavating music from the past, and then I'm also doing, you know, stuff in the media space, and writing, and all kinds of different aspects to my musicianship.

And maybe it took me a minute to see how they all fit together. But they really do. Everything feels very organic right now, and I'm fortunate that I have a fantastic team who does, you know, keep my calendar up to date so that I can focus on one thing at a time.

But I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel like the job of being a musician in our world today really does just have a lot of layers to it. And I think especially if your work is pretty much mission-driven the way mine is, I feel like I have I have to use all of these platforms to reach everybody I can and communicate about these things that I care about.

Because, you know, I'm looking forward so much to playing with the orchestra there and there's nothing like being in that space of live music with an audience and the energy that exists in that room. But there are also lots of people who aren't in that room—who can't be in that room for one reason or another—so I'm so grateful to have the platform of radio and recordings to reach out to play this music everywhere I can

FULLER: Lara thanks so much for sticking to that mission, for taking the time to talk today, and to share your vision, your advocacy, and your music with us all. All best as you make your way here to South Carolina on Saturday.

DOWNES: Thanks so much. I'm looking forward to seeing you.

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Originally from Greenwood, SC, Bradley Fuller has maintained a deep interest in classical music since the age of six. With piano lessons throughout grade school and involvement in marching and concert bands on the saxophone, Bradley further developed musical abilities as well as an appreciation for the importance of arts education.