Lara Downes | Photo by Rik Keller
On her new CD, Lara Downes returns to works by American composers, but a more diverse group of them than the recording she released 15 years ago. Inspired by the Charleston shootings, she wanted to take a broad look at the American dream, and what it has meant and continues to mean. America Again is her first disc on the Sono Luminus label.
Lara Downes had expected to be releasing a very different album as her first Sono Luminous recording. “We had talked about a project that was a late 19th Century Vienna: Korngold, Strauss, Brahms… a really lovely project, and were gearing up to get started with that, and then the shootings in Charleston happened.” She says she didn’t feel inspired to go forward with the Viennese CD. “I was reading Langston Hughes, and I was thinking about progress and the lack of it, and how time can turn itself back, and how we were finding ourselves in a version of America that I hoped was finished.” So instead, it turned into an exploration of the American dream. And a more inclusive one. When she released American Ballads 15 years ago, it had a conventional lineup. “It was Copland and Barber, and – you know, a bunch of wonderful American composers who are white and dead and male… And I wanted to kind of revisit that territory but broaden it out and look at American diversity, American stories, American dreams.” So there are composers and interpreters of color (Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Scott Joplin, Nina Simone’s arrangement of ‘I Loves You Porgy’) along with women composers like Amy Beach, Florence Price, and Angelica Negron. Plus some off-the-beaten track works by Morton Gould, Lou Harrison, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland. “There’s a backstory behind each one of these pieces that touches on the American dream,” she says. “We think of it sometimes as a trope. And it’s not. It’s a motivation for everything.”