New KUSC evening host Lara Downes is ‘not going to pretend to be a DJ — I’m just going to be myself’
“Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony” can be a tongue-twister, especially if you’re reading those words on air. But Lara Downes, the new evening host on the Los Angeles classical music station KUSC-FM (91.5), was unfazed one recent night when she saw it slated as the next piece on the playlist. It was, she told herself, nothing she couldn’t handle.
Then, she continued reading the copy. The recording was by — wait for it — the Cincinnati Symphony.
“I literally cracked up on air,” she says with a laugh. “That was too much.”
Downes is a world-class pianist who regularly performs throughout the country, appearing at the likes of Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood. She makes recordings, including a well-received new album of Scott Joplin’s music, and founded Rising Sun Music, a recording series that elevates both the music and stories of Black composers throughout history.
Like Leonard Bernstein, a major inspiration, Downes has long been interested in both telling stories through music and telling stories about music. After four weeks on the air in an interim capacity, she has now been officially named to the job following previous host Jim Svejda’s retirement after 43 years.
“Evening Music With Lara Downes,” which runs from 8 p.m. to midnight weeknights, has a rigorous commitment to diversity; in it, Downes makes a point to weave in works by women and composers of color. Much like her many recordings, Downes’ playlists include music by American composers as an integral part of her program, not just as a garnish or occasional curiosity. The focus reflects an approach she has taken since the earliest days of her career, one that was shaped by her upbringing.
Downes discussed her formative experiences in this edited interview, where she called from the Sacramento home she shares with her husband, who teaches evolutionary biology at UC Davis.
You grew up in San Francisco, where your parents — your late father, a biochemical researcher with Jamaican roots, and your mother, an attorney with Eastern European Jewish roots — met during a school board sit-in. You and your two younger sisters were home-schooled, and I gather music played a big role in your education. How old were you when you started at the keyboard?
I was intensely drawn to the instrument from the beginning. I was 3 when I started playing and 4 when I started formal music training.
We had three pianos in our home, because my sisters and I were all expected to practice. One of the pianos was in the living room. Mom was passing through all the time, so that was not ideal. The second was in a guest bedroom. That was a favorite, since you could close the door and read a book while you were practicing, which I did frequently. The third piano was in the basement, which was creepy. We were supposed to take turns, but there was always the possibility of bribing or blackmailing another sister to switch with you.
When you were in your teens, your family moved to Europe, and you ended up staying there to study music for nearly a decade. What was it like to return home after so many years abroad?
When I was just out of school and back in this country, I had a revelation. I went to this exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that was called ‘The American Century.’ It was a retrospective of the 20th century in America, and it was done in a multidisciplinary way. You would come across, say, an Edward Hopper painting and a piece of music from that same era, along with what was happening in politics and society at that time. All of the sudden, I saw how all of these things connected. That provided me with both clarity and excitement. I wanted to tell stories through the curation of music. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing ever since.
At first, this desire had a lot to do with identity for me. Being a person of mixed race, being home-schooled and therefore somewhat isolated, and then spending my formative years in Europe, I did not have a sense of what it meant to be an American. I was trying to figure out where I fit here — and especially where I fit as a musician. At first, this was an internal quest. I then began expressing what I was learning about my identity through music.
It sounds like you learned a lot in Europe, but you sensed there was also something missing.
My teachers literally knew only three or four American composers: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and maybe Samuel Barber. When I came back here, one of the first questions I asked myself was: “Were all American composers white men?” That seemed unlikely. I found a compilation in a library [“Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music”]. It included the first “Fantasy” by Florence Price, which I started playing right away.
Once that door opened, I started asking what else was out there. That was the beginning of a long journey, which I’m still on. I’m uncovering a huge wealth of music by composers of color. In doing that work, I’m helping to retell the story of American music, where it came from and who it belongs to.
KUSC listeners may not realize that you started doing this show just over a year ago on its sister station KDFC in San Francisco. How did it come about?
They came to me with the idea of being a resident artist for the radio group. I remember being asked if it was something I would ever consider, and before I knew it, what came out of my mouth was, “Sure. When I grow up, I want to be Leonard Bernstein.” Bernstein harnessed many different platforms to reach the largest number of people possible and pull them into his overflowing love of music. So the idea of using all the ways we know how to communicate and invite people in is really exciting to me.
How do you choose which pieces to play, and where they belong in the program?
I think a radio show, like an album, needs to create a sound world. Each show is an emotional journey with dips and swells. I work with the music directors of both stations, who have been great — really collaborative with my vision of expanding the repertoire. We start with a core of music that’s already beloved and then expand on it. That’s our way of welcoming people into new experiences. One of my favorite things is to pair unlikely bedfellows that share a common vision or inspiration.
Have you ever played one of your own recordings on the show?
Sometimes, but not too much. There is a lot of music of Black composers or female composers where the only recordings are mine. So I’m not highlighting myself but rather a piece of music I feel passionate about.
Making records consisting largely of little-known music isn’t exactly a traditional career path. Nor is adding the job of radio host to your already busy schedule as a touring musician.
My career choices have always been a little bit risky and a little bit quirky. But they’ve all been entirely authentic, and I think that’s the key to the success I have had. So I’m not going to pretend to be a DJ. I’m just going to be myself.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.