There is beauty here, let Lara Downes show you / WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW
"Hey, do you want to go out to the symphony tonight?!"
"I sure do, I LOVE symphonic music! What are they playing?"
"It's a program of American classical music!"
It has been nearly a century now since Aaron Copland returned from his studies in France to attempt a grand fusion of American lyrical elements with European classical traditions, and in that fruitful eight score of years American composers have interwoven modern insights with historical melodies to craft a vast body of compelling and challenging music. From Price to Cage and Bernstein to Babbitt, an imposing pantheon of composers have lifted American classical music from the imitative dregs of the nineteenth century to a living and vibrant experimentation that stands firmly in the world's musical vanguard. Yet looking at the American concert scene, that boisterous sense of experimentation and firm pride is nowhere to be seen – take a random program from 1919 and one from 2019 and one would be hard pressed to tell which is which, so little is the last century of American development programmed or requested.
Having internalized the condescension of early critics, we have become ashamed of our own music, and to protect ourselves from ridicule, have convinced ourselves that it is boring and somehow beneath our notice. We belittle it, and avoid it, even (and perhaps especially) if we haven't listened to much of it. It takes a rare musical artist to stand up in front of that knee-jerk scorn, that shame-born indifference, and declare, "There is beauty here, let me show you," but for the last two decades that is precisely what pianist Lara Downes has done.
With her talent she could have crafted for herself a safe and lucrative career as an interpreter of the standard European canon – offering up Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff concerti to a public that knows what it likes and will happily pay for the sound of it. But from her first album she set herself a distinct challenge, charting at the age of twenty a mission to make her records acts of discovery rather than exercises in familiarity, opening new worlds to those listeners who had the musical curiosity to follow her. I asked her whether she felt trepidation about following such a risky path at a young age…