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Lara Downes shows how music matters / San Francisco Classical Voice

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Awarded a 2016 Sphinx Medal of Excellence given each year to distinguished, emerging classical artists of color, American pianist Lara Downes says the $50,000 career grant "just fell from the sky." If it did, it was a sky painted with the deeply exploratory brushstrokes of a hardworking artist whose interest in classical music extends well beyond notes in a score or technique in fingers on piano keys. Lauded by the likes of NPR, Huffington Post, and others, Downes' intriguing performance and recording projects, her Green Room radio show, and her Artist Sessions series of pop-up concerts demonstrate her good fortune is far more than luck.

But it might surprise most people listening to her nuanced, elegant, and decidedly facile playing - or audiences familiar with her casual, breezy conversational tone - that Downes has experienced a kind of "growth spurt" during the past several years. "There are a lot of things about my [racial identity] and shaping my artistic choices that I'm only realizing now," she says, as if waking from a dream. 

An upcoming Artist Session with violinist Rachel Barton Pine demonstrates one way Downes has learned to maneuver in the whitewater rapids of what she says is "the music industry's swift river." The performance includes works by African-American composers William Grant Still, Daniel Roumain, Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, and rarely heard female composers Clara Schumann and Amy Beach.

"The whole concert is a fluid back and forth between conversation and music. We chat about each piece, but what happens is that we're talking about the performance in personal ways. Program notes are great, but they don't connect the dots between a piece and why we play it now and why we care about it."

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