Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I started at the piano as a toddler and simply never stopped! I just never found anything I loved as much. In my teens, I had passing fantasies about being an archaeologist or an actor “when I grew up”, and then I realized that I could incorporate aspects of both of those careers into my musical path. My work involves a lot of archaeological excavation of the repertoire in search of historical narrative and context, and I think that I channel my inner actress into the task of interpreting the emotions and messages of the composers whose works I perform.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing/composing?
It’s been a collage of many things: my very first teacher, Maria Cisyk, was my first love! She was a wonderful woman who integrated a true understanding of and curiosity about music into the first steps at the piano. As soon as I could cover a five-finger position, she had me playing little and Bach and Bartok pieces, and learning the stories behind them so that I had a sense, from the very beginning, of the scope of a history and a tradition in music.
A little later I went on to work with Adolph Baller, a wonderful Austrian pianist with whom I studied at Stanford when I was still very young. He gave me, again, another layer of understanding about the importance of tradition. Having come out of the Viennese tradition himself – he studied with a former student of Franz Liszt! – he was a direct link to the European Romantic school that I, an adolescent in California, could only vaguely imagine. Tragically, Baller had suffered tremendously during the Nazi regime (he was interred in a concentration camp and his fingers were broken), before escaping to the U.S., where he was able to rehabilitate his hands and resume his career as Yehudi Menuhin’s accompanist and a member of the Alma Trio. His story gave me some insights into the power that music can have in a life, the strength that can be found in one’s calling throughout personal tragedy and upheaval. That was an important turning point.
Later on, as a teenager, I studied myself at the Hochschule in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg with the great Hans Graf, and was able to touch that grand tradition for myself, which brought everything full circle. I remember a winter morning in Vienna, the first heavy snow of the year, when an Argentine classmate came running into Graf’s class saying “I went to the Mozart house and I walked in Mozart’s snow!” That’s how it felt for me during those years, working in the birthplace of the tradition, treading the same ground as the composer whose works I was studying. Very magical.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I think that I’ve come of age in a challenging time to be a musician, but also a very liberating one. So I see the challenges also as advantages. The limited opportunities in the concert world (especially in the U.S. where funding for the arts is such a tremendous issue) present a constant difficulty, but ultimately that difficulty has been an inspiration to me to develop a real creativity and innovative spirit in my approach to presentation and programming, to build a unique profile as an artist, to identify what it is that I have to offer and share with audiences that is uniquely mine, my genuine voice in the world. I think we are living in a time when an artist with something significant to say can take a significant amount of control in determining how, when and where he or she is heard. There is a really interesting and diverse mix of artistic personas on the concert stage these days, reflecting a commitment to different ways and means of musical expression. I think it’s very exciting.
And then of course there have been the challenges of combining my professional and personal lives – the same challenges we all face as musicians, finding ways to integrate my roles in my family and in the professional world. Being a mother of two young children has meant making some choices. But that too, I think, has been a very positive thing for me. I’m certainly a more centered, more thoughtful musician than I was when I was younger, and obsessed solely with the day-to-day mechanics of being a pianist, practicing 6 hours a day. Having a wider landscape to tend has been very good for me. I’ve built a career that encompasses performing and recording, writing, and also concert curating and presenting, which I love to do. Being active as a concert and festival curator/presenter allows me more space to bring my many (too many??) ideas to life! It’s important to me to have some impact in shaping the future of an art form that is changing so quickly, and has so much potential to reach new audiences in new ways.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m proudest of the multi-faceted projects I’ve created and produced from start to finish, which have encompassed everything from commissioning and premiering new works, to writing and delivering narrative commentary from the stage, co-producing multimedia/visual enhancements, and self-producing and releasing recordings on my own label (Tritone).
Some favourite examples are:
13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: 13 new re-imaginings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. World premiere recording released on the Tritone label in 2010
Long Time Coming: A full-length multimedia concert featuring works by Duke Ellington and a new commission from composer David Sanford
The Americans: A retrospective of concert music influenced by the American vernacular
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I love playing the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They treat artists so well (my son wants me to go back so we can “ride in the limo”!), but more than that, the place evokes for me something very powerful about respect for and pride in the arts. It’s just a beautiful place to be and to perform.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Whatever I’m working on at the moment! And some “comfort food” pieces that go way back for me, that I turn to when I need to sort of musically meditate and center myself: the Chopin Nocturnes, Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Bach’s Goldbergs, some favourite pieces by Barber, Ives, and Prokofiev…
Who are your favourite musicians?
Arthur Rubinstein, Billie Holiday, Richard Goode, Nat “King” Cole, Chet Baker, Etta James, Charles Aznavour, the Beatles, Pablo Casals, my son playing the trumpet, Lucio Dalla… you see it’s pretty all over the place!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Hearing Rudolf Serkin under the big tent at Tanglewood in the late ‘80s, just a few years before his death. I was a kid watching a legend and knowing deep in my bones just how precious the moment was. Again, to me he represented the magic of the tradition.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Know what your music means to you. Find your voice. Learn what you alone have to give. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Be flexible in your thinking and let your path take you in unexpected directions. The future can surprise you.
What are you working on at the moment?
My next recording, Exiles’ Café, will be released on the Steinway & Sons label on 26 February 2013. It’s a collection of 19th and 20th century music by composers in exile, or written in response to the experience of exile and diaspora. I’ve positioned music by composers displaced by World War II (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill) alongside works by earlier composers such as Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, who were likewise political exiles in their own time. I’ve also included the Africa Suite by African American composer William Grant Still, representing the permanent wandering of the African Diaspora, and some preludes by the American composer and novelist Paul Bowles, who lived in self-imposed exile in Tangiers for the latter part of his life. The central, big piece on the album is Korngold’s 2nd Sonata, which he wrote in 1910 when he was a thirteen year old prodigy! It’s a massive, late-Romantic, very Straussian work, just absolutely gorgeous and lush.
The project illustrates the global currents of diaspora and exile, which create artistic confluence among people from many different backgrounds of time and place. I think the theme of displacement is one with which everyone is familiar at some level, and also I think that this goes back to my answer to your earlier question, which touched on my deep emotions about the tradition that has built our concert repertoire. Often it has been breaks in that tradition that have actually carried it forward – the historical and political situations that have carried composers from one place to another (Chopin from Poland to France, Rachmaninoff out of Russia, Korngold to Hollywood where he made a legendary career as a film composer and defined the future of that genre) have influenced the development of concert music in a profound way. So once again challenges sometimes prove essential!
What is your present state of mind?
It’s a hugely exciting time for me. I’m watching several musical projects come to full maturity and thrive, and I’m embarking on new ones. I feel that I’ve arrived at a time in my life when my musical/professional priorities are clear to me. I know what I want to do, and I’m ready for new challenges. I feel lucky every single day to be making a life in music, really. It’s an amazing thing.
Lara Downes’ biography
Lara Downes’ website
Pre-order Exiles’ Café here
New projects from Lara Downes:
“I’m launching a new concert series in San Francisco in April. The Artist Sessions will be held at a historic jazz club called Yoshi’s, where the atmosphere is very modern and informal, and the audience is diverse and “downtown”. The concerts will be unique in the sense that they will be presented as immersive encounters with the artists – each evening will be begin with an onstage conversation between the guest artist and myself, and will conclude with an audience talk-back session. I want audiences and artists to come together as people, and for listeners to find context and connection in the work being presented. The first Spring Preview season will feature performances by Christopher O’Riley and myself, and then a full Fall season will resume in September (series guests will be announced in April).”
Lara has just opened an online piano studio where she can meet students from around the world. Sessions can be held from anywhere with wifi and a webcam. Further information here