Pianist believes the arts can illuminate the world
Her family teases that Lara Downes can’t sit still — never could — unless she was sitting on a piano bench. Even when she was 3 years old — “I know I was 3, because I started piano lessons at 4” — Downes “could not fathom” why anyone wouldn’t sit still at the piano. “It’s where I’ve always felt centered and grounded.”
Downes, who is considered one of the foremost American pianists of her generation, says she came by her passion for music naturally. Genealogy work done by her mother points to a great-uncle “back in the old country” who was a violinist, she says with a laugh. But more important was her father, who died when she was 9. He loved nothing more than to share his collection of vinyl albums with her, and those are among her favorite early memories.
It was Downes’ mother, she adds, who taught her by example that women could be strong, resilient leaders. “If you grow up with a single mom, you grow up understanding women run the world,” she says with another chuckle.
Like most youngsters, however, Downes had moments when she resisted her destiny. For awhile, fascinated by Greek and Roman history and mythology, she wanted to be an archaeologist — but thought it would require too much patience. She also went through a period of wanting to act. But those two things, along with her father’s heart for music and her mother’s head — she’s an attorney — came together for Downes in the piano.
“I am still a huge nerd,” she says, laughing. “I love finding hidden treasures in piano repertoire, and interpreting music requires a huge amount of character and drama. So I feel like this is it; I’ve always been happy doing this.”
When Downes visits Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Sept. 14-16, she’ll share not just her joy at the piano but her interest in the visual arts, particularly the work of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Having spent her teenage years studying in Europe, Downes says she returned to the United States without much of a sense of what it meant to be American. “I was really trying to understand my identity,” she says, when she attended an exhibition called “The American Century” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. “It was a lightbulb moment,” she says, illuminating for her how the arts reflect and support social and cultural identity, growth and change.
“Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is so influenced by music, and she is so musical in what she does with color,” Downes muses. “The relationship between color and music is so fascinating to me. Musicians talk about color all the time, and we assume everyone else understands something that to us is instinctively clear. A lot of musicians really see color, experience color, when they play.”
A particular O’Keeffe quote, “I want real things … music that makes holes in the sky,” made Downes “stop and take a breath.” That willingness to dream big and reach high “kind of gets lost in childhood,” she says. “But music has the ability to make a space or fill a space,” to “create a space where people are breathing together.”
Downes’ 2019 album, “Holes in the Sky,” from which she’ll perform at Crystal Bridges, features female composers from Florence Price to Elena Ruehr and songs by women like Judy Collins, all in celebration of “the contributions of phenomenal women” and as a reminder to, as O’Keeffe said, “love as hard” as you can.
“Politicians are making speeches about creating community and healing the divide, and music can do that.”
‘Holes in the Sky’
Sept. 14: Gallery Conversation on Georgia O’Keeffe, 1 p.m.
Sept. 15: Van Cliburn Concert Series performance, 3 p.m.
Sept. 16: Piano workshop; call for information
WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville
COST — Tickets for the Sept. 15 performance are $10 for students, $45 for adults
INFO — 657-2335