It’s tough keeping up with Lara Downes. No sooner have we reported on one of her latest innovative initiatives than it’s time to report on another. On Feb. 5, the relentlessly curious and creative pianist launches Rising Sun Music, a digital-format record label presenting works by Black composers spanning two centuries. The ongoing series will present monthly EPs celebrating specific themes: Remember Me to Harlem (February), Phenomenal Women (March), and Spring Fever (April).
From pioneers like William Grant Still, Eubie Blake, and Margaret Bonds to voices of today like Jessie Montgomery, Carlos Simon, and Quinn Mason, the composers spotlighted in this eclectic series broaden and enrich the conventional narratives of classical music in America and beyond. (See the current list of composers to be featured here.)
Artists in the series include Nicole Cabell; Regina Carter; Anat Cohen; Lara Downes; Randall Goosby; Stewart Goodyear; Ivalas Quartet; Jiji; Bridget Kibbey; Rachel Barton Pine, Davóne Tines; Titus Underwood, and others. These recordings are co-produced by Grammy award-winning producer Adam Abeshouse.
In a phone conversation, Downes told SF Classical Voice about her aspirations for the project:
The project has two main objectives. One is to make recordings of historical works that have not been recorded or are not available. That’s going back 200 years, so there’s a lot of research going on. A lot of finding manuscripts in libraries. That was my first vision for the project — just to uncover so many buried stories. The second piece of that is that it is illuminating the continuum — trying to position this music as a rich and broad and profound tradition, which means stretching forward into the present. In terms of choosing contemporary works, I have developed a wide community of living composers whose work I really appreciate, and there are always more to discover.
My main goal here is to really clarify something about American concert music and Black composers in terms of the narrative we’re always telling, which is that Florence Price was the first (fill in the blank) and that William Grant Still was the first (fill in the blank), and it’s a story of firsts and onlies. What I really want people to see when they understand the breadth of this music — how much there is and how much we don’t know — it is a tradition, a lineage that is a beautiful part of our American culture and our American life, and we don’t know it. And when we know it, we understand a lot of things about who we are and where we are going.”
When asked about the selection of pieces for the initial releases and the digital-only format, Downes had a timely explanation.
“It’s COVID times, so in terms of recording, we’re starting small with small ensembles and solo recordings, with hopes and plans to expand into larger ensembles and orchestras down the road. The digital format makes sense in these pandemic times; when literally everyone is staying at home, the digital format gives everyone access. And for the continuous stream that we are planning with Rising Sun — four new pieces a month — the physical format isn’t practical. Down the we may do physical releases of compilations, but my objective now is consistency.”
To catch a preview, listen to Downes performing Margaret Bonds’s newly-discovered solo piano piece Tangamerican.
Rising Sun Music is distributed digitally worldwide by [PIAS] and available on all major streaming and download platforms including Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Primephonic, and Idagio.
Sheet music for many of the pieces in the Rising Sun series will be published by the Theodore Presser Company. The publications will be available from all sheet music retailers worldwide, and directly from www.presser.com, in both print and digital formats.
The Rising Sun series is made possible by a grant from the Sphinx Venture Fund.
Here are the themes and playlists for the first three programs:
Feb. 5, 2021:
Remember Me to Harlem will focus on New York’s Harlem neighborhood as an iconic hub of Black creativity.
Benny Golson: Classical Dreams — Lara Downes, piano
Eubie Blake: Love Will Find A Way — Lara Downes, piano
William Grant Still: Song for the Lonely — Lara Downes, piano and Titus Underwood, oboe
Margaret Bonds/Langston Hughes: When the Dove Enters In — Lara Downes, piano and Davóne Tines, bass-baritone
March 5, 2021:
Phenomenal Women spotlights the music of Black women composers.
Hazel Scott: Peace of Mind — Lara Downes, piano
Margaret Bonds: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed — Lara Downes, piano and Nicole Cabell, soprano
Nora Holt: Negro Dance — Lara Downes, piano
Florence Price: Andante con Espressione — Lara Downes, piano and Rachel Barton Pine, violin
April 2, 2021:
Spring Fever comprises four pieces inspired by the spring season
Betty Jackson King: Spring Intermezzo — Lara Downes, piano
Nkeiru Okoye: When Young Spring Comes — Lara Downes, piano
H. Leslie Adams: L’extase d’amour — Lara Downes, piano and Jordan Bak, viola
Alvin Singleton: Changing Faces — Lara Downes, piano