Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, an iconoclast dedicated to expanding the resonance and relevance of American music for diverse audiences. A trailblazer on and off-stage, she follows a musical roadmap that seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family, and collective memory. Downes’ playing has been called “ravishing” by Fanfare Magazine, "luscious, moody and dreamy” by The New York Times, and "addicting - Downes plays with an open, honest heart" by The Huffington Post.
Her chart-topping release America Again was included in NPR’s “10 Albums that saved 2016” and called “a balm for a country riven by disunion” by the Boston Globe. Downes’ creative catalysts are the musicians that inspire her – from Leonard Bernstein to Nina Simone – as her work explores the breadth and diversity of American history through our music. She writes: “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.”
Downes’ newest release and Sony Music debut album FOR LENNY is an intimate centennial tribute to Leonard Bernstein and his American legacy. The album was awarded the 2017 Classical Recording Foundation Award and debuted in the Billboard Top 20. Classical Candor writes, “Downes’ sensitive, nuanced playing brings out the best in everything… Her poignant artistry is first-rate, and she makes an exemplary communicator of all things Bernstein and all things American.”
Born in San Francisco and raised in Europe, Downes’ interest in connecting music to a broad and inclusive breadth of human experience mines her mixed Jamaican and Russian background and peripatetic upbringing to find inspiration in unexpected places. She enjoys collaborating with myriad artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, baritone Thomas Hampson, singer Rhiannon Giddens, jazz vocalist Theo Bleckmann, beatboxer Kevin "K.O." Olusola, writer Adam Gopnik, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Her collaborations with leading composers span genres and generations to bring significant new contributions to the American repertoire.
A laureate of the 2016 Sphinx Medal of Excellence award, Downes is recognized as a leader in expanding the reach of the arts as a performer, an entrepreneur, and a cultural visionary. She is an Artist-in-Residence at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts - UC Davis, where she mentors young musicians as director of the National Young Artists Program. She serves on the advisory board of The Time In Children's Arts Initiative and is the founding director of the My Promise Project.
Also a writer, Downes’ essays and memoirs have been published in The Rumpus, Listen Magazine, Huffington Post, and Reader’s Digest. She is a favorite of national radio audiences and featured on NPR’s First Listen, WNYC’s New Sounds, MPR’s Marketplace, and SiriusXM’s Symphony Hall. As a pianist, Downes has performed on stages ranging from Carnegie Hall, John F. Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the U.S. Supreme Court, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Vienna Konzerthaus, to downtown venues including National Sawdust, Le Poisson Rouge, and Yoshi’s SF., among others.
Upcoming engagements take her coast to coast from Alaska to New Hampshire, with debuts this summer at Ravinia Festival and Glimmerglass. New projects include appearances as a featured artist on Thomas Hampson's 50 State tour Song Of America: Beyond Liberty, the launch of a duo cabaret show with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and the world premiere of a new piano concerto by Maxime Goulet. Additionally, she is pioneering Holes In The Sky, a recording and concert program of multi-genre piano, vocal, and chamber music by women composers and poets, which celebrate stories of women’s lives and dreams. The project is inspired by this quote by Georgia O’Keefe: “I want real things - live people to take hold of - to see - and talk to - music that makes holes in the sky - I want to love as hard as I can,” and will feature collaborations with prominent female artists across genres and traditions.
Lara Downes is a Yamaha Artist.