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Interview: Pianist Lara Downes returns to Toronto filled with distance and longing

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(Joan Louie photo)

For pianist Lara Downes, the shape of a programme is as important as the music in it. Last year, the Californian came to Toronto with an exquisite riff on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She returns on Saturday with meditations on exile.

In her return visit to Parkdale’s Gallery 345, Downes is going perform the music from Exiles’ Café, a new album being released next month on the relatively new Steinway & Sons recording label.

exilesThere are works from 11 composers on the disc, ranging from Frédéric Chopin to the world-premiere recording of a piece by young New Yorker Mohammed Fairouz, who is having a new opera premiered tonight at the Prototype Festival.

Some of the composers — like Chopin, Bohuslav Martinu, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Belá Bartók, Darius Milhaud, and Sergeis Prokofiev and Rachmaninov — were physical exiles from their mother country.

Others, like Fairouz and fellow New Yorker Michael Sahl, and Hollywood film composer William Grand Still (1895-1978), are more about exiles of the mind. You can find the full track listing here.

Thanks to revolutions, wars, genocides and all other sorts of human turbulence, there’s an overwhelming amount of music born of displacement, and it took a lot of work to shape a manageable programme. “I could come up with 20 albums on this theme,” says Downes.

“I wanted a consistent tone or mood,” she explains. “As I went along I started to become more romantic. For example the late music of Bartók was not fitting musically.”

So Downes felt free to pick something from the composer’s youth — well before he felt compelled to leave his native Hungary. That same freedom led to Korngold’s Sonata No. 2, written when the future Hollywood film score master was an in-demand, young-genius Austro-Hungarian.

Downes shared the first movement of that Sonata with me. It is lush, dense music that encourages the listener to enter and get lost. Downes plays it with the same compelling combination of strength and delicacy that she demonstrated on her Goldberg disc.

But the first movement is all we get to hear.

“The piece was such an exciting discovery for me,” says Downes. “It’s a four-movement piece that came in at 35 minutes, which was way too long for the album.” So, in the interest of keeping the album varied but also sharing the complete Sonata with her listeners, the full Korngold piece will be made available for digital download when the album comes out.

“You so clearly hear in his sound world what would later come through in his film scores,” says Downes.

There’s a gorgeous, tonal Tango by Igor Stravinsky in this programme. He had a difficult time collecting royalties for his infamous ballet scores, so he had to write easily published music for quick income. “I found it very poignant,” says Downes.

Chopin, the oldest composer on this album, is represented by four Mazurkas, traditional Polish dances spun into pianistic miniatures in Paris. “My choice reflects his full span in exile,” the pianist explains. “The first Mazurka is from his first year in Paris, 1831; the last is the last one he wrote before he died [in 1849].”

Still’s Africa Suite, a three-movement work from the late 1920s, addresses the complex mix of realities and emotions facing African-Americans, with roots on one continent, yet lives very much anchored in another — amidst all sorts of challenges. Downes chose one movement here, as well: “Land of Romance.”

The pianist laughs at the year-long process of coming up with a finished album. She thought the exiles theme would allow her to wrap the music up into neat little packages, but the histories were never that simple. “Often the ending of the story was very sad; often there was no resolution.”

Along the way, Downes read about and heard many fascinating stories and became friends with a granddaughter of Korngold’s, a professional violinist living in Portland, Ore. So she has decided to include a place for people to reflect on the nature of exile on Tumblr, as part of her musical adventures.

One entry, posted last month, quotes W.H. Auden’s “Refugee Blues,” a little refrain as true for hundreds of thousands of people in 2012 as it was in 1939: “Once we had a country and we found it fair/ Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:/ We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.”

But we can, actually — for a few minutes, thanks to the power of music.

For more details on Downes’ Saturday recital, click here.

And this is the trailer for the album:

John Terauds

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