Lara Downes is a chart-topping recording artist, producer, curator, and arts advocate. She’s spent the past decade investigating some of the underrepresented and forgotten musicians – specifically, Black composers and musicians – of the classical music genre.
“A big misconception,” she says, “is that they don’t exist … honestly, until I was in my early twenties, I did not know.”
Downes, who has a Jewish mother and a Black father, says she fell in love with the piano and classical music at a very young age, never taking her race or gender into account.
“This art form, as far as I knew for many years, did not include me as a woman of color — it’s a European-centric white male world,” she says. “And that was kind of okay with me for a long time.”
Downes nevertheless made a way for herself, putting her focus on music as she studied abroad in Europe. After returning to the United States, she says, she went on a search for identity. The desire had her investigating American music – the history and the sound separate from the more traditional European style of classical music. She says what she learned changed everything.
“The moment that I discovered the truth and the diversity of this art form, how many composers of color, how many women have contributed and have defined this music,” she says, “I mean, I just have a different existence in it and I have a different existence in what I want to share with audiences.”
One “aha” moment came when Downes discovered the music of Florence Price — an Arkansas native who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration and became the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. She was also the first to have one of her compositions played by a major orchestra.
“I just found this one piece of hers that had been published, and I started playing it,” says Downes. “And I was like this is a new sound to me – but it’s not.”
Downes began playing Price’s music and that of other Black composers and musicians, like Scott Joplin and now, Billy Strayhorn. She says the sound of these composers shared a common thread.
“I feel like there is this very identifiable, familiar thing that I call the American sound,” she says. “And we know it when we hear it, but we don’t really know how to parse it out. And really what it is, is this place where different American traditions come together.”
Downes launched Rising Sun Music, a record label she hopes to use to highlight underrepresented artists.
“A really, really big part of what we’re trying to accomplish right now is the truth of history, the truth of legacy and lineage,” Downes says. “There has been this presence and a foundational presence [and] that presence hasn’t been acknowledged.”
Lara Downes will perform at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington on June 3rd, as part of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s “Classics I – Celebrate!” series.
For more on Lara Downes and her upcoming projects, visit her website.