Lara Downes' Busy Spring Spans Generations, Continents, and Cultures

Lara Downes (Credit: Max Barrett)

Lara Downes (Credit: Max Barrett)

Downes is Classical KDFC’s resident artist and an on-air host for the station, which broadcasts from SFCM’s Bowes Center. "Love at Last," her debut album for SFCM's record label, Pentatone, is out now.

By Alex Heigl

Lara Downes is on a mission to get under-recognized artists their love at last.

Among the many diverse streams of her work—her weeknight show on Classical KDFC, broadcast from SFCM’s campus, her NPR interview series “Amplify,” and of course her performing and recording schedule—is the common thread of expanding the tent of "classical" music to welcome a wider range of humanity. 

"I think we're at a good point right now where more of the majority of music appreciators are awakening themselves to the reality of the greater diversity in the history of music," Downes said. "But there are still narratives in there that come down to very broad strokes."

High among these, for her, is Florence Price and her story. Despite having notched a number of impressive "firsts" and over 300 compositions, Price, who was Black, was in danger of losing a substantial collection of her works until they were discovered 50 years after her death in a dilapidated, abandoned house in Illinois.

Downes' 2019 album Florence Price Discoveries contained world premieres of several of the newly-unearthed works, and she went on to perform Price’s 1943 Piano Concerto in D Minor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Pops, the Detroit Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, and the Brevard Music Center Orchestra.

In late January, Downes opened a Classical California SKY Concert live performance at SFCM’s Bowes Center with Price's "Adoration," which she played alongside violinist Amaryn Olmeda. Olmeda, an SFCM Pre-College student and Sphinx Competition winner, was the first student selected for the Artist Apprentice Program, a joint effort by SFCM and Opus 3 Artists (the management company acquired by SFCM in 2020) that pairs outstanding early-career musicians with resources and support infrastructure.

Amaryn Olmeda and Lara Downes.

"So much of Price’s story comes down to these very broad strokes: The closed doors, the barriers. And I think that ends up erasing a lot of what's beautiful about what their music brought to the tradition. So I like to offer listeners not the tragic story that we all know, but the progress that was made, the barriers that were broken, and all that was accomplished," Downes said. 

Downes and Olmeda performing at KDFC's SKY Concert series in SFCM’s Bowes Center.

Downes' newest record Love At Last—her first on Pentatone, the label acquired by SFCM in 2022—doesn't feature any of Price's compositions, though they remain in her repertoire. Nonetheless, it expands on Downes' tradition of surfacing less-heard works that speak to the universality of the human condition.

Downes speaks about the role of storytelling in music in this clip from a panel on the future of the industry hosted at SFCM this spring.

"Lara Downes has been a collaborator, dear friend and inspiration to me over many years, and I've had the great fortune of working with her over that time, both as a composer (she gave the West Coast premiere of several of my piano works just blocks from the SFCM), and in helping represent her recordings on other labels: Sony, Steinway and Rising Sun," Pentatone Managing Director Sean Hickey says. "Lara takes no half measures and embodies the qualities that we seek in an artist: complete engagement on all levels and brilliant storytelling in each project."

"We had our first conversations of what would become Love at Last not long after I started at Pentatone, and we are honored to release this brilliant recording now. It is receiving much-deserved attention and Lara has been a steadfast partner with the Pentatone team. As a personal bonus, I'm particularly proud to have my piece, "Fluid"—dedicated to my daughter on her unique journey—included among a diverse group of brilliant composers, each work under the hands of an innovative and probing modern artist."

One of the tracks on Love At Last is "I Believe: Credo, No. 2," by Margaret Bonds, who Downes says her investigation of Price led her to discover. Bonds, Downes says, collaborated frequently with Black poets like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, but faced pushback from labels and publishers, who wanted her to change the text of Du Bois' landmark poem "Credo" from "especially do I believe in the Negro race" to "especially do I believe in the human race." They suggested Bonds contact Du Bois' widow, who understandably refused, and the piece went unpublished until 2022. 

Downes didn't notice until sequencing Love At Last that its 24 tracks represent mostly women composers and those from usually underrepresented areas of the world in classical music like Kenya, Iran, and countries in South America. One track, a version of "Amazing Grace," was arranged by Shawn Okpebholo, a winner of the inaugural Emerging Black Composers Project led by SFCM and the San Francisco Symphony.

"It came together with this incredible diversity and that wasn't at all the point,” she said. “We weren't trying to do that, we just naturally did."

Find out more about “Love At Last,” released for Earth Day 2023, via Pentatone.