Downes plays Ellington, new work in very personal concert

By March 31, 2011

Pianist Lara Downes enjoys a personal connection to Duke Ellington's music. Courtesy photo

Pianist Lara Downes enjoys a personal connection to Duke Ellington's music. Courtesy photo


What: Pianist Lara Downes performing “Long Time Coming”; she and composer David Sanford will give pre-concert talks one hour before each performance

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center

Tickets: $35 general, $17.50 for students; http://www.mondaviarts.org, (530) 754-2787

Pianist Lara Downes of Davis will be featured in the premiere of a new multimedia work inspired by Duke Ellington titled “Long Time Coming” at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10, in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center.

“Long Time Coming,” composed by David Sanford, also will feature Kylie Batlin speaking a text by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, along with musicians Sam Bass (cello), Sam Crowe (alto sax) and Bill Vonderhaar (bass). The piece has three movements, titled “heaven just a whisper,” “promise” and “everything still to come.”

Sanford is a past winner of the Rome Prize, a major award for composers. His compositions have been performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and locally by the Empyrean Ensemble at UC Davis.

The new piece was inspired in part by another piece on the program: Ellington’s hopeful and forward-looking piano concerto from 1943, “New World A Coming’,” which will be performed in an arrangement by Sam Crowe.

Downes said “Ellington’s piece was written during World War II, and it was an anthem of hope for the end of colonialism and fascism, and the end of racism.”

Ellington drew his inspiration in part from a book and a radio show by Roi Ottley, whose 1943 book (also titled “New World A Comin’ ”) won the Peabody Award, among other honors. Ottley became the first African-American to serve as a war correspondent with a major American daily newspaper.

“There was a big movement among the black community, a vision of what the end of World War II was going to mean for people of color in this country, and everywhere,” Downes said.  “Ottley’s radio show was on the air in Harlem during the 1940s, and Ellington wrote the theme music for that show.”

Backing Downes on the Ellington concerto will be the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet, a group of young musicians that tours nationally, and is based at the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. The group’s drummer is a familiar face: Colin McDaniel is a 2010 graduate of Davis High School. McDaniel also won the 2010 Downbeat award for outstanding extended composition.

“I love that the Brubeck Quintet is playing with me. That’s the future, right there,” Downes said.

She said Sanford’s new piece draws on Ellington and Ottley’s heritage in several ways: “David’s piece uses some archival recordings from Ottley’s radio show. David also plays thematically with some ideas from Ellington’s piece. David’s style is very eclectic, drawing on symphonic music, rhythm and blues, funk and hip-hop. It’s very contemporary but also accessible.”

Downes expects the historical Ellington concerto and the new Sanford piece will generate some sparks as they are presented on the same program.

“It’s a show about yesterday, today and tomorrow, and a lot of it concerns the future,” Downes said.

She will take Sanford’s new piece to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for a performance in about a year.

The concert also has a very personal meaning for Downes.

“My dad was raised in Harlem, and my parents met through the civil rights movement. My mom was an attorney, my dad was a writer and a scientist. The first pieces of music that I remember hearing were Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations,’ in the first Glenn Gould recording, and Ellington’s ‘Sacred Concerts.’

“During my childhood, I got a constant input of classical music. I started playing the piano when I was 4. My parents dragged me and my siblings to every concert and opera that they could. And my dad listened to Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Their music was always in my ears.”

Downes’ father, alas, died when she was 9.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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