Women Composers Take the Stage

Award-winning classical pianist plays the music of female composers at this year’s virtual Oregon Bach Fest

Lara Downes

A versatile and prolific pianist with a gentle touch for her instrument, Lara Downes performed several times at this year’s virtual Oregon Bach Festival, after participating over the winter in a remote artist residency with the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

The California-based musician’s final appearance at this year’s online event is Phenomenal Women Part 2: American Pioneers on July 6, showcasing several great American female composers of the 20th century, including Amy Beach, Eve Belgarian, Margaret Bonds and Hazel Scott.

Born in San Francisco in the early 1970s, Downes is a conservatory-trained musician who has played piano since the age of four.

Looking up at the walls of her practice space as a young musician, Downes recalls seeing portraits of old white male composers looking back at her. At that time, she was largely unaware of the female contribution to the classical music canon.

Of those early experiences as a musician, she says, “You love this music. It feels like home in so many ways. But everyone you’re seeing is from another century and from another gender and race.”

Downes continues, “You’re always measuring up to some standard that doesn’t include you — across the board. It’s odd to function in a man’s world when that’s not what you are.”

And once the underrepresented contributions of women in music were uncovered, Downes made it her life’s work to share the work more widely. In the work of female composers, “There’s definitely a different lived experience,” Downes says.

But the common thread, she says, are “women who were ahead of their time — though I’m getting tired of saying ahead of their time — let’s just say, ‘outside their time,’ operating without being hemmed in by the restraints that existed.”

Last year, Downes released Florence Price Piano Discoveries, a mid-century American composer equally as comfortable with Euro-centric romantic music as she was with jazz and spiritual informed compositions, and whose works were just being rediscovered at the time of Downes’ recording.

Following that, there was Phenomenal Women, the first of four EPs released on Downes’ own record label, Rising Sun Music. And that’s not all. In mid-July, New Day Begun is expected from Lara Downes and Friends.

The first full-length album from Downes label, it’s a collection of music from Black composers of every genre, with new arrangements of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Lettie B. Alston’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with several guest appearances.

Downes can’t say exactly how her trajectory as a musician might have changed with a broader awareness of diverse contributions to the canon of classical music earlier on, but she says, “I can tell you it would have been happier and healthier.”

With historical context and a visual component, Phenomenal Women Part 2: American Pioneers is available only at OregonBachFestival.org from July 6 through July 11; FREE.

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