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Renowned Musicians Lara Downes, Christian McBride Make Surprise Appearance

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The pair greeted students following a Roots, Jazz, and American Music big band concert at SFCM’s Bowes Center.

May 1, 2023 by Beth Giudicessi

Performance Today’s 2022 “Classical Woman of the Year,” Classical KDFC Resident Artist and On-Air Host, and pianist Lara Downes and eight-time GRAMMY Award-winning composer, bassist, and National Public Radio (NPR) host Christian McBride surprised students by dropping in after this semester’s Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM) big band concert and playing host to a question-and-answer session—and late-night pizza party—afterwards.

a group photo of rjam students with christian mcbride and lara downes

Students from the RJAM program and beyond gathered with surprise guests Lara Downes and Christian McBride following the spring big bang concert. The concert was dedicated to the late jazz saxophonist, composer, and co-founder of the band Weather Report Wayne Shorter. It opened with his piece “Yes or No” and included works by Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Mary Lou Williams.

“Wow, well that's not something that happens every day! I don't know who was more excited to see Lara Downes and Christian McBride show up at our concert—the students or me,” said RJAM Executive Director, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Special Advisor to the President Jason Hainsworth. “It was really great of them to hang out with us.  The students got a chance to pick their brains while having some pizza and I'm so appreciative of how both Lara and Christian took time out of their busy schedules to join us for an evening.”

The appearance capped a significant week for Downes. Her latest album, Love At Last—her first on the SFCM-owned label Pentatone—was released on April 21, debuting in the top five on the Billboard Chart. She appeared on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” the same day. Both projects were infused with Downes’ characteristic penchant for creativity and taking audiences on deep, often unexpected journeys with music, musicians, and the emotions they evoke.

As Downes shared with students, she traveled to the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. with her own Californian “super bloom”: a suitcase full of artificial flowers and butterflies. They brought a vibrant, environmentally inspired visual appeal to the piano wedged into the office of Bob Boilen, host of “Tiny Desk,” where the series is recorded. 

A spirit of renewal weaves throughout the recorded concert and new album, which includes arrangements of Schubert’s “Belief in Spring” and J.S. Bach’s tribute to communal hope and light in troubled times, “Sleepers Awake,” as well as works by a group of thoughtfully curated contemporary composers whose contributions to the evolving canon traverse generations, continents, and cultures.

Lara downes plays a tiny desk concert surrounded by flowers

Prior to the guests’ arrival, students watched Downes’ “Tiny Desk Concert,” which was recorded at the NPR world headquarters on the occasion of her new album, Love At Last, being released on the SFCM- owned label Pentatone. Downes supplied distinct, colorful, and nature-inspired piano décor.

“These times of ours can feel dark indeed, but I hope this music reminds you that love and hope can guide us through every dark night to a bright new morning,” Downes wrote about the tracks.

Fittingly, Love At Last was released to correspond with Earth Day 2023. Its title derives from a poem by 19th century Ukrainian Jewish writer Shaul Tchernichovsky. He wrote “Let the time be dark with hatred/ I believe in years beyond/ Love at last shall bind all people/ In an everlasting bond.”

“There’s so much great music in the world. There are so many great musicians and great cultures,” McBride told the students, echoing the album’s sentiment. “That’s what drives me. I see this whole world filled with great musicians and cultures and I think, ‘I want some of that!’”

Christian Mcbride holds up Lara downes' album to rjam students

Christian McBride holds up Lara Downes’ new album, “Love At Last” released on April 21, 2023. The distinguished musicians made a surprise appearance on campus, playing host to casual conversation with students.

During their conversation, McBride and Downes shared stories about their varied sources of inspiration, the highs and lows of their early careers, and their advice for post-graduation planning.

“I think sometimes the gigs you don’t get are the most important,” said Downes, referring to one’s early auditions. “That’s what opens the door to the things you’re actually supposed to do.”

“That is so right,” agreed McBride. 

The pair are familiar on campus – and not just because of their stardom.

Downes regularly broadcasts from the Classical KDFC studios in SFCM’s Bowes Center, and she recently performed at SFCM’s Barbro Osher Recital Hall with Pre-College violinist Amaryn Olmeda as part of Classical California’s SKY Concert series. Earlier this spring, she contributed to a conversation in SFCM’s Studio G about the future of classical music.

McBride addressed the first graduating class of RJAM students at the Conservatory’s 2021 virtual Commencement Exercises. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate.

david stull makes a phone call gesture while looking at lara downes and christian mcbride

“It was really unique and fun to be a part of this type of music,” said Soren Davick MM ‘24, who is studying classical double bass. Davick performed in the big band concert and stayed afterwards to chat with Downes and McBride. “Hearing them talk was helpful in terms of having ideas for what I want to do. Hearing it from people who have found such success gives me hope.” 

Learn more about SFCM’s first-of-its-kind RJAM program.