Arts & Theater

Classical pianist Downes reflects on the nation in her latest album

Pianist Lara Downes will perform her new album, “America Again,” at the Mondavi Center.
Pianist Lara Downes will perform her new album, “America Again,” at the Mondavi Center. Rik Keller Photography

When pianist Lara Downes performs Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Mondavi Center, regional audiences will have a rare opportunity to hear her play live.

Though Downes is an artist in residence at the Mondavi, her schedule of concerts for the next six months has more shows in various New York City performance venues (four) than she has in our region (zero).

Downes, a classical pianist, plays a genre-blending repertoire. Her solo piano album “America Again,” to be released Friday, Oct. 28, by Sono Luminus, has already generated acclaim.

Downes took her inspiration from the great African American poet Langston Hughes and his prescient, still timely 1935 “Let America Be America Again.” She was preparing to make a very different album when nine people were shot dead in a Charleston, S.C., church on June 17, 2015. Downes felt she needed to make something more concerned with our country, the times we live in and her feelings about them.

Hughes’ poem opens with the lines, “Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be.”

“I had the poem in my head,” Downes said. “I had this basic idea of what I wanted to focus on in the American Dream and the dream deferred.”

Hughes’ poem reflects that dissolution and anger, but it also asks for optimism.

“I think the hope in the poem is essential to me,” Downes said.

The music on her album also reflects a range of emotions and an expansive view of our culture and our country. There are modern composers such Morton Gould (“American Caprice”) and Lou Harrison (“New York Waltzes”). There are less-familiar pieces from legends: Leonard Bernstein (“Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim”), Duke Ellington (“Melancholia”) and Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies,” arranged by Art Tatum). There are also sweet surprises such as “Sueño Recurrente (Recurring Dream)” by Puerto Rican-born composer Angélica Negrón, and “Fantasie Negre” by little-known Florence Price, the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.

Taken together, “America Again” feels like Downes’ personal American Dream.

“There’s this history and tradition that’s calling in a really powerful way,” she said.

“The essential thing for me was really not to have a conversation any more about what is classical music and what is jazz. I just wanted to make it clear – if only through the sound of it – this is American music and it all belongs together.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Lara Downes

What: The pianist performs her new album “America Again”

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis

Tickets: $10-$35

Information: www.mondaviarts.org

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