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Pianist Lara Downes' Special Gift From Her Mom

Pianist Lara Downes with her mom, Ruth.

Mother's Day is a time to honor our mothers and the roles they've played in shaping who we are. Pianist Lara Downes' music shines a light on social justice, in the tradition of her own mother. 

Lara—whose new album, Some of These Days, was named one of NPR's top albums for April, 2020—plays classical, jazz, and music that crosses genres. She collaborates with musicians, artists, poets and writers, including singer-songwriter Judy Collins, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Her recordings celebrate musical heroes, mine music from composers who have been neglected, and offer new arrangements of familiar tunes.

When she sits down at her piano, Lara tells stories with her music. And very often, there's a bit of her own story in there, too.

Ruth and Lara in 1973.

Lara's parents— her father, a Harlem-born biochemist and her mother, a Jewish attorney from Ohio—met as community activists in San Francisco. Born in 1973 and home-schooled in California, Lara began piano at age four. After her father died, when she was just nine, Lara moved to Europe with her mother and sisters, where she studied the western classical canon. But at 21, she was drawn back to America to learn its music and its history, and to better understand her own background.

Her album, Some of These Daysis a collection based on spirituals, music of protest, and music of hope, including this piece recorded with the Chapin sisters.

Lara says making the album was satisfying on a personal as well as professional level. "I was able to really connect with my mom, because my mom and my dad met during the civil rights movement. And I remember when I was younger, I always heard these dramatic stories from her about how it was all triumphant and exciting!" 

"And at a certain point when I was a kid, she said, 'you know, it wasn't always what you see on the clips on TV. We spent a lot of time just sitting in classrooms having meetings and making flyers. It was a little bit at a time. It was tiny steps at a time.' And that really stuck with me. " 

Tiny steps forward towards a better world. Encouraging thoughts for today.

"You move forward, and then you cycle back, and forward again," says Lara, pointing to the work going on today by social advocacy groups and others.  Tiny steps "inching along because this vision that we have, this promise we have as a country, it's a very long road, and we just keep moving on it. It was really enlightening to realize that we're still on this same, long march of progress."

Her mother has been there for Lara in her work as a musician—supporting her, cheering her on, and sometimes just being there, hanging out as a mom.

We're grateful for all the mothers in our lives. Happy Mother's Day!

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.