Pianist Lara Downes and the Integration of All-American Music

Imagine if some of the music of great underrated American composers (like Florence Price and William Grant Still) that now finds its way into the programs of “classical music” organizations all over the world were presented not as special but rather as totally normal.

Washington happens to be a hub, or at least a frequent hangout, of artists and ensembles with a long-standing credibility for bringing this material into the American mainstream without always labeling it primarily as music or African American, Native American or Hispanic American music. by American women.

Hear any part of two substantial works that you won’t find in any symphony orchestra concert, but which are intended for smaller, more contained forces. This will illustrate that these works should be ranked among the best of all all-American works.survey music, regardless of the composer’s training or how long it was largely or entirely ignored.

Florence Price and William Grant Still

For example, in the 1920s, Florence Prize (1887–1953) wrote a suite for string quartet titled Five Counterpoint Folk Songs it is a magical synthesis of general American folk music, especially African American folk song, Christian and arguably European classical music forms and techniques.

It is a suite for the four standard instruments of a string quartet which manages to bring together the tunes of “My Darling Clementine”, “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”, “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Swing Low, Sweet Cart”. but with distinct interpretative approaches to each movement that are arguably far more meaningful to a general audience than are typically Italian names of classical movements based simply on tempo markings.

And in 1935, William Grant Again (1895-1978) wrote Three visions: a suite for piano solo where it is not difficult to hear the worldwide experiments in tonality and chord structure then in progress in international concert music. And yet the general “Americana” sound of the era and the aspirational, hard-nosed, proto-jazzy African-American musical tradition also shine in this sequel, more penetratingly in the second. Vision titled “Summerland”.

Excerpts from these two vastly underrated works – check the low view counts of the two YouTube links! – were featured in a concert in November presented by Washington Performing Arts and conducted by a renowned American pianist Lara Downes, who has literally incorporated this body of work throughout this century while all the others are now catching up.

Lara Downes. Photo by Christine DiPasquale.

Starting with his 2001 album American Ballads and continues through his 2016 album America again and then she 2019 holes in the sky with all-female composers (including collaborations with Judy Collins among others), Lara Downes has long explored this repertoire side by side on her recordings with Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein and other long-established white American composers. .

More of this theme will be included in a concert on April 10, 2022, at the Clarice Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, when Downes joined percussionist Britton-René Collins and Brazilian American multi-instrumentalist and singer Clarice Assad in another of his signature and eye-opening collaborations.

“We want this music to flow into the culture,” Downes told me during a Zoom session from his Bay Area home studio ahead of the November gig. “I’m really excited about the day Florence Price plays herself without any mention of, you know, all the ‘stuff’ [about her being Black and female]. It’s just putting the music in everyone’s ears.

It is an ongoing process that requires both continuity and informality. “We can play this music in the concert hall, we can talk [academically] about this music,” Downes says. “But until people hear it every day, in an ordinary way, in your car, nothing really changes.”

“For every gig I do in a venue of 300, it’s also really important that there’s a track on a Spotify playlist called ‘Beautiful Music for Your Cocktail Hour’ or whatever, so those names become familiar,” she said with a good-humored laugh. “That way you’re not strength to search for Florence Price. You found Florence Price naturally.

Downes’ concert was in conjunction with the Thalea String Quartet, which joined her in – among many other works – two of Florence Price’s four movements Piano Quintet in A minor. One of the moves is based on a historic African-American dance form called Juba which involves stomping as well as slapping and patting the arms, legs and chest. These excerpts from the piano quintet were having their premiere in Washington, D.C., and curiously, the date of composition of some of Price’s music cannot be fixed because it has been found – either for the first time or to complete individual instrumental parts. – as recently as 2009 in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, about 60 miles south of Chicago.

When you hear Price’s Quintet, feel free to draw an analogy between the Juba movement and the infinitely more familiar American music of George Gershwin. The point is, Price’s work turns out to be every bit as “American” as his, which Gershwin would almost certainly have said himself if he hadn’t died before the age of 40 in 1937 and died. he had never had the chance to learn of the existence of Florence Price.

Downes’ opening gig of the season for Washington Performing Arts last month also included solo piano and string quartet collaborations with composers representing a kind of hilltop theme in American history of minority groups. This included jazz composer-arrangers like Eubie Blake and Billy Taylor, living composers like Carlos Simon and Puerto Rican-born Angélica Negrón, and his own piano elaborations on Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the luscious and exuberant Duke Ellington. new world coming — in its original form, essentially a one-movement piano concerto that should be played more in the major concert series of American symphony orchestras.

In all of this is Downes’ important insight into the repeated mini-epochs of American music history in which black composers and performers seemed to temporarily rise to the heights of universal American culture, only for those eras go out until the next one pops up for a while.

Lara Downes

“It’s almost heartwarming, or at least puts some order in things,” Downes said. Referring to her own half-black, half-Jewish heritage, she adds with a chuckle: “I almost existed because of the civil rights movement. It was this wonderful future in which people like me could have a very different life than they would have had a generation before. And I’ve had so many conversations with my mom over the years about it being a peak, right?

“But look at what we do over and over and over again. We do one thing and then we completely forget it and find something else. It’s just life, it’s the cycle of being human on this planet, apparently. So to me it makes sense, all these [up and down cycles] in music.”

In all of this, Downes wants audiences and music lovers in general to know that the music of black composers throughout much of American history has tended to return to themes and tunes developed by their plantation slave ancestors. . For example, at the November concert, Downes shamelessly played a short piece titled “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” from a suite titled Old and New Plantation Melodies by Henry T. Burleigh, a surprisingly important African-American figure in general musical history. Burleigh has done everything from assisting Czech composer Antonin Dvorak in New York in the 1890s, when Dvorak composed his famous symphony No. 9 titled “From the New World”, to singing in church choirs and synagogues in the northeastern United States before his death. at age 82 in 1949.

“Americans have this intense nostalgia for our roots, and that’s what I think we hear in this music,” Downes told me. “For example, we have black composers who were born in the North — their grandparents came out of slavery, well that’s good, we’re done with that. But no, they go back to plantation melodies, which is a very raw, very recent, very dark story.

“But it’s in your DNA, it’s your roots. It’s that thing that just keeps translating, no matter what step we take in any genre or new ideas. Those things come with us, do not you think ? “

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