Lara Downes is a professional pianist and host of an evening program on Classical KDFC 90.3. (Photo/Matt Barrett)
Lara Downes is a professional pianist and host of an evening program on Classical KDFC 90.3. (Photo/Matt Barrett)

Classical ambassador: Pianist and radio host Lara Downes is on a mission to celebrate Black composers

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Lara Downes is the queen of classical music in California.

Each weeknight from 8 p.m. to midnight, Downes hosts a program that can be heard in the Bay Area on 90.3 FM KDFC, in Southern California on KUSC and online from anywhere in the world. “Evening Music with Lara Downes” debuted just over a year ago, and Downes has been using her platform to expose listeners accustomed to the standard classical fare — concertos and sonatas by mostly white, male and European composers — to more pieces by women and people of color.

It is a personal mission for Downes, who is Black and Jewish and lives in Sacramento. And it is one she pursues not just as a radio host, but also as a professional pianist, with a catalog of 17 albums and counting. Her latest, “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered,” pays tribute to the African American composer known as the “king of ragtime.”

“Unfortunately, classical music can get very exclusive,” Downes told J. during a recent interview on Zoom. “Traditionally, you hear it if you go into a concert hall, which means you can afford the ticket and the time and you have the inclination, like somehow you have the culture behind you. And there’s also this idea that you can only appreciate it if you really understand it.”

Her goal, she said, is to “open those doors” through her radio show and a variety of other projects, including a video series for NPR Music that spotlights Black musicians and a digital label, Rising Sun Music, that she created to release new recordings of pieces written by Black composers during the last 200 years. She also maintains a busy concert schedule. On May 6, Downes will perform pieces by Brazilian American composer Clarice Assad, among others, at the Mondavi Center on the campus of UC Davis.

The daughter of a white, Jewish mother and Jamaican American father, Downes spent much of her childhood in San Francisco and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El. Her father, a scientist who converted to Judaism, died from cancer when she was 9. “The temple by that point had really become sort of an extended family for us, and was really just sort of a grounding space,” she said.

Downes started playing the piano at 3, and by 8 she was studying with Adolph Baller, an Austrian pianist who taught music at Stanford for 31 years and performed as a duo with famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Baller’s life experiences — he survived the Holocaust, but Nazi soldiers crushed his hands upon learning that he was a pianist — taught her “about music being more than entertainment, that it can be a lifeline,” she said.

When she was around 10, her mother began taking her to the Jewish Home of San Francisco (now the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living) to play for its elderly residents, including Holocaust survivors. “At the time, it was like a scary place with these very old people who had funny accents, right?” she recalled. “My mom was not a stage mother, but there was always an emphasis on using the music for social good. It was, if this is something that really is central to your life, then you need to share it.”

Downes’ mother homeschooled her and her two younger sisters, Shana and Avi (“it was this post-’60s idealism about better ways to do things”), and Downes admitted the arrangement was somewhat haphazard. “But for me, it actually served me well,” she said, since it gave her the freedom to read and practice as she wished.

Glenn Downes holds daughter Lara at a rally in San Francisco, circa 1975.
Glenn Downes holds daughter Lara at a rally in San Francisco, circa 1975.

On a commentary track at the end of “Reflections,” she talks about how her mother brought the girls to the Castro Theatre to see double features on weekday afternoons. “The Sting,” the 1973 caper starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford with a soundtrack full of Scott Joplin rags, left a particularly strong impression on young Lara.

“When I look back now at that long-ago afternoon at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, I see my little girl self, bathed in the glow of a giant movie screen, falling in love with Joplin’s music because, somehow, it reflected me,” she says on the album. “Somehow his music showed me the contradictions and conflicts that come with being a musician of many facets.”

Born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1867 or 1868, Joplin practiced piano at the homes of the white people whose houses his mother cleaned. His first piano teacher, as Downes notes on her album, was a Jewish immigrant from Germany (Julius Weiss). Although Joplin was a key figure in the development of ragtime — a “ragged,” syncopated form of music that anticipated jazz — and wrote such classics as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” he was never able to escape the stigma attached to the music by white and Black people alike. Also, he was bad with money, and he died a pauper around age 50.

“The Sting” brought renewed interest to Joplin’s work, and his crowning achievement — an opera called “Treemonisha” — was properly staged in the 1970s. He posthumously received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his contributions to American music.

With “Reflections” and her performances of Joplin’s music, Downes said she aims to evoke a “blended emotion of familiarity and discovery” in listeners. “I think that most people really just know this one tune, ‘The Entertainer,’ and his name. And so telling the story has been such a revelation to so many people.”

A few days before the interview with J., Downes hosted a Passover seder at her Sacramento home with her husband, a professor of evolutionary biology and ecology at UC Davis. Her mother and niece also attended. “It was strange to have Passover when there’s a war,” she said, referring to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The seder “had so much real-life relevance to it.”

The threads of exile and diaspora run through Downes’ oeuvre and life. Her 2013 album “Exiles’ Café” included 19th- and 20th-century music by composers who found themselves unable to return to their homelands for various reasons, including the German Jewish composer Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazis in 1933. Downes, herself, led what she has described as a “gypsy-like existence” after her family decamped to Europe following her father’s death. She lived in Paris, Vienna and parts of Italy, studying and performing along the way.

Yet she has also shown a deep interest in and appreciation for American classical music. In 2018, she released “For Lenny” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom she considers a personal hero. “I think what I’ve always been so fascinated with is not only his ability to communicate across so many different media, but also his insistence on doing that and also always pushing the envelope,” she said.

Judy McAlpine, president of the nonprofit, listener-funded USC Radio Group (which includes KDFC and KUSC), called Downes “one of America’s great classical music ambassadors.” Mark Steinmetz, the organization’s vice president of content, said in an email that she “brings joy, positivity, empathy and interest in what it means to listen to classical music in new ways.” Her radio show reaches about 140,000 people per week, according to McAlpine.

On a recent episode of “Evening Music with Lara Downes,” she introduced pieces by the classical heavy hitters — Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky — in her soothing voice. She also included music by Grazyna Bacewicz (whom she described as “a trailblazing artist who led the way for female composers in Poland and around the world”) and Austrian Maria Theresia von Paradis, as well as the Black British pianist Alexis Ffrench.

“The music serves a bigger purpose,” she told J., “and it’s a purpose that has to do with education and social justice and kindness and compassion and communication and empathy.”

Lara Downes and Clarice Assad

7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 at Mondavi Center, 523 Mrak Hall Drive, Davis. $12.50-$65.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.