Poster Pianist Lara Downes
Pianist Lara Downes presents a reimagined 'Rhapsody in Blue' from her upcoming album, 'This Land'
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Lara Downes reimagines Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Lara Downes
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New Classical Tracks - Lara Downes
New Classical Tracks - February 7, 2024

Lara Downes/Edwin Outwater/San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra/Edmar Colón – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from This Land (Pentatone)

“Gershwin’s definition of Rhapsody in Blue is ‘the musical kaleidoscope of America.’ And he talks about celebrating the melting pot,” pianist Lara Downes says. “And so you ask yourself, ‘What was the melting pot like in 1924? And what is the melting pot like today?’”

When Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue premiered 100 years ago at Aeolian Hall in New York City, on Feb. 12, 1924, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, a fusion of jazz and classical music.

Downes decided the best way to celebrate the centennial of the piece was to reimagine this iconic work for the 21st century.

“I was just thinking, ‘How would America sound like to Gershwin today,’” Downes says. “I thought, ‘That's what we need to do. We need to explore the past, the present and the future of this piece all in one.’”

That’s why Downes commissioned Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón to create a fresh approach to Gershwin’s masterpiece. This reimagined version was recorded in October at its premiere, with Edwin Outwater leading the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra. And now, it’s the new single from Downes’ forthcoming release, This Land, due in the fall.

How does Rhapsody in Blue reflect the America of the time that Gershwin wrote it, which was shortly after World War I?

“It was a time of so much shift in America. You had so many African Americans coming up from the south and settling in cities like New York City. You had had a steady stream of immigration from Europe.

“And Gershwin himself was the son of immigrants. So he's a first-generation American. His roots were in the Yiddish theater, in vaudeville. But then here comes this sound, this new thing called jazz, and it's everywhere and it’s in his ears, and he's seeking it out and trying to learn this new language. And at the same time he's traveling to Paris to try to study classical music with Maurice Ravel.”

Your mission with this reimagined work is to celebrate the waves upon waves of new arrivals to this country over the past century, and this mission is also personal for you. Will you tell us that story?

“I didn't know that much about 1924, but one of the things that I learned was that Gershwin wrote this piece at the beginning of the year, and in May of that same year there was a new legislation passed, the Johnson Reed act, which really shut down immigration from many parts of the world.

“But I think they kind of forgot about the British West Indies, which are all these Caribbean islands that were still British colonies. And so there was this huge wave of immigration from those islands. So when I learned that, I went on the Ancestry website and I saw that my grandfather had come from Jamaica to Harlem in 1924, which really was a goosebumps moment.”

The world premiere of this new work took place in October in San Francisco. It was you at the piano with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra and Edwin Atwater conducting. Why was it so important to have this young group of forward-thinking musicians premiere this work?

To have their first experience with this work be this contemporary version is really reflecting so much of their lived experience because this piece is built to be site specific. So, when we played it in San Francisco, one of the components was an ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments, because that immigration is so essential to California and to the Bay Area.

“We had a big battery of Afro-Caribbean percussionists, and just seeing the faces of everybody on the stage, hearing these sounds that reflect their own lineage in these tunes that we love so much, it puts a different lens on what this music means. I had tears because it was really such a beautiful moment of bringing the past so firmly into today.”

Resources

Lara Downes/Edwin Outwater/San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra/Edmar Colón – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from This Land (Pentatone)

Lara Downes/Edwin Outwater/San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra/Edmar Colón – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from This Land (Amazon)

Lara Downes (official site)

Edwin Outwater (official site)

San Francisco Conservatory of Music (official site)

Edmar Colón (official site)

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