Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Lara Downes' Vision of the American Dream

Jul 2, 2019

July 1, 2019. The hope in the "American Dream" is heard in the 2016 album, America Again, by pianist Lara Downes. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has the story.

Radio script: 

[MUSIC: Ernest Bloch, "At Sea," from America Again]

Susan Lewis: Lara Downes, an American pianist with Jamaican-American and Jewish-Eastern European roots, plays jazz, classical, and music that crosses genres. The American dream is a recurring theme.

Lara Downes: Our American story, most of the time, begins with someone’s journey to America, journeys made across the ocean and over mountains.

SL: Her CD, America Again, references the 1935 poem by Langston Hughes.

LD:  The poem opens, "Let America be America again, let it be the dream it used to be." I just honed in on this notion of the American dream and what it really means. It led me to a lot of different music and a lot of different stories.

SL: Music rooted in places, from the Shenandoah Valley to New York City; music informed by different cultures that make up America.

[MUSIC: "Shenandoah," from America Again]

[MUSIC: Morton Gould, American Caprice, from America Again]

And what Downes calls the conversation between generations: as in Art Tatum’s arrangement of the Irving Berlin song, "Blue Skies."

LD: I digested it, re-interpreted it, re-imagined it from a classical background.

SL: Music expressing the hope and resilience of the dream.

LD: We have this spirit to us that keeps us trying big things, and  falling down, and getting up again. I think for me, the music is really reconnecting us with what is beautiful and true and essential about American life.

[MUSIC: "American Caprice" from America Again]

SL: The music of America Again spans the 20th century and beyond, and includes three world-premiere recordings.

Information about Lara's Promise Project

Lara's latest release is Holes in the Sky, a compilation album that celebrates women's contributions to American music.  It features women composers and performers, including violinist Rachel Barton Pine, songwriter Judy Collins, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein.  The title references a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe:  "I want real things - live people to take hold of - to see - and talk to - music that makes holes in the sky - I want to love as hard as I can."