Lara Downes’ whole life has been a blending of traditions, styles, cultures, races and genres. Not satisfied with being one of the preeminent pianists of her generation, Lara courageously dons and then sheds labels like “classical” or “eclectic” as freely as she engages audiences of all ages with her charismatic presence, intellectual curiosity, and masterful command of her artistic voice. She wants to create experiences that bring 19th and 20th century traditions firmly into the present for 21st century audiences. She is a trailblazer onstage and off. She is also a writer, a broadcaster, a mentor and a role model who understands that music is a dialogue between artist and audience, as everyday life is a balance between speaking and listening, giving and receiving.
Not surprisingly, Lara is comfortable in a diverse range of venues from Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge (NYC) and Yoshi’s (SF), to the club down the street. Her personal journey from student (trained by Hans Graf and Rudolph Buchbinder) to artist has followed a roadmap that seeks inspiration in unexpected places, drawing on the legacies of family, history, art and culture to form an artistic vision that in turn inspires her audiences with a unique style that the Huffington Post has called “addicting – Downes plays with an open, honest heart.”
Born in San Francisco and raised in Europe, Downes’ interest in connecting music to a wide and inclusive breadth of human experience mines her own mixed African American and Eastern European background and her peripatetic upbringing. As she has shed the stricture of genre in her view of music, the musical press has embraced her distinctive artistry: her playing has been called “ravishing” by Fanfare magazine, “luscious, moody and dreamy” by the The New York Times and her recent chart-topping release, A Billie Holiday Songbook, has been embraced by both jazz and classical critics and listeners, called “possibly the most intriguing Holiday tribute” of this centenary year by Jazz Weekly.
Her newest release, America Again (Sono Luminus, 2016) is in many ways the coming-of-age memoir of an artist who has found her own way and carved her own path through American music. Lara takes inspiration from the musicians that inspire her – from Leonard Bernstein to Nina Simone – to express the diversity of American history and American dreams. In her own words: “I’ve traveled all around this country and played for audiences in small towns and big cities. I’ve learned that my music is a bridge to unexpected friendships with people who come from very different versions of America than my own. There is no such thing as a typical American life, and there are millions of American stories. American music has a complicated history, full of contrasts and contradictions, just like my own, and I’ve learned that what is most beautiful about me comes down to my contradictions and contrasts.”
Lara’s music is available on over 200 digital platforms throughout the world and her performances on YouTube have attracted a cult-like following. A laureate of the 2016 Sphinx Medal of Excellence award, Lara has been recognized as a leader in expanding the reach of the arts, as a performer, an entrepreneur, and a cultural visionary. When not on the road recording or performing, Lara serves as Artist in Residence at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis where she mentors the next generation of young musicians as Director of the Mondavi Center National Young Artists Program. She is a Steinway Artist.