Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Lara Downes Plays Music To Lift Us Up In Troubled Times

May 17, 2020

May 18, 2020. As Memorial Day approaches, we think of the service and sacrifice of so many to protect our country and keep us safe. Our classical album of the week, Some of These Days, is a recent release by pianist Lara Downes featuring American music about perseverence, hope, and caring for one another.

The album title comes from a short piece by  African-American composer, pianist and music teacher Florence Price (1887-1983), whose music Lara discovered in a library over a dozen years ago.  Initially thinking she would do an album on Price and her blending of the African-American and European musical traditions,  Lara began to realize the pervasive influence of the spiritual, "and what that has meant to all of us as Americans." 

The piece, "Some of These Days" is based on the spiritual, "Welcome Table," which has a line: "All God's children gonna sit together some of these days."

Lara talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis on Zoom about what inspired her to create this album, and how it resonates today. 

The music on this the album—put together well before the Covid 19 pandemic—draws us into stories of struggle, reminding us that we have survived troubled times before. 

Lara offers intriguing arrangements -- from "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless child," for piano with archival recordings made in 1939 of women inmates in a Florida State Prison to "Steal Away," a mash up of classical composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), contemporary singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon, and Lara, herself, to "Hold On," a work by 20th-century black composer Margaret Bonds, who was influenced by the poetry of Langston Hughes.

And these are just the first three tracks!

The 14 pieces include collaborations with solo voice, vocal ensemble, violin, trumpet and string quartet. There are arrangements of familiar tunes, including "Down by the Riverside," "We Shall Overcome," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," as well as another piece by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), The Bells, which was unpublished and unrecorded, until now.

"It's a wonderful sort of fantasy, based on the spiritual, "Peter, Go Ring Them Bells," says Lara. "Last year, we lost the great Jessye Norman who made a tremendous recording of that song. So when I get to the climax, I always feel her in my heart."

Lara's music, driven by stories and bursting with heart, reminds us of the strength of the human spirit.  "For me, it's been helpful to think about the cycle of history and this music speaks so clearly to that," says Lara. "And now, in this time, more than ever, knowing that we've been through major upheavals before, and we've gotten through. We will get through again."

Some Of These Days tracklist:

  • Traditional: "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child"
  • Traditional / Charles Ives: "Steal Away, with Toshi Reagon"
  • Margaret Bonds: Troubled Water
  • Margaret Bonds: "Hold On," with Musicality and PUBLIQuartet
  • Billy Taylor/Nina Simone: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free"
  • H.T. Burleigh: "Deep River," with PUBLIQuartet
  • Traditional: "Down By The Riverside"
  • Traditional: "All Night, All Day," with Howard Fishman
  • H.T.Burleigh: "My Lord, What A Mornin'," with Alphonso Horne
  • Margaret Bonds: The Bells
  • Traditional: "We Shall Overcome," with The Chapin Sisters 
  • Florence Price: Fantasie Negre, No. 2: 
  • Clarence Cameron White: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," with Adam Abeshouse: 
  • Florence Price:"Some Of These Days"

The album concludes with a commentary track with writer Jacqueline Woodson.

Continuing in the spirit of the album, this summer, Lara is launching a national program of free virtual creative writing and arts workshops for young people ages 12-16. "The workshops connect students with their peers," she says, "using the tradition of freedom songs as unifying and galvanizing tools for self-expression and activism."

Workshops begin week of June 22. To learn more and sign up, visit MY PROMISE PROJECT.

Check out more Classical Albums of the Week.