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Rising Stars Come to Kohl

Music at Kohl

Date: Sat May 1, 2010 3:00pm

Music at Kohl is now in its 27th season of presenting music and musical education in the South Bay. The current year’s program includes performances by such well-known ensembles as the Borealis String Quartet, the Ives Quartet, and the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players.

In addition to these concerts, which take place at the historic Kohl Mansion located on the campus of Mercy High School in Burlingame, Music at Kohl also offers concerts free to the public in the Oak Room at the San Mateo Public Library as part of its Family Series. Coming up on May 1, pianist Lara Downes will be joined in recital by 14-year-old cellist Clark Pang from Orinda; 11-year-old pianist Alex Chien, a sixth grader from Saratoga; and 14-year-old soprano Meagan Rao, from Placer High School. Music at Kohl and Downes are a natural fit. Music at Kohl is in its 18th year of taking music to San Mateo County schools, and Downes founded the Rising Stars of California program, which performs music in schools and offers awards through competition to performers aged 8 through 18.

Downes herself, along with two of the program’s competition winners, performed at a private donor event at the Kohl Mansion. Executive Director of Music at Kohl Patricia Kristof Moy explains that she was “bowled over by their virtuosity and poise, and asked Lara to return with some of her ‘rising stars’ for our Family Concert series, which was relocated last year to the wonderful new San Mateo Library, which boasts a perfect concert space with a fine piano.”

Lara Downes is a parent herself, with a daughter, age 8, and a son, 6, who she says are both finding their way to music. Downes began piano at age 4 and says that she had previously had the idea that one must begin on piano before learning another instrument, but her daughter’s natural inclination to the cello has caused her to reconsider that idea. Her desire to nurture young talent seems to derive from an awareness of the example and encouragement she herself has been given, as well as a sense of gratitude for those opportunities.

Her founding of the Rising Stars program, she says, came about at the Mondavi Center, where she is a resident artist. “The young-artist competition project started as an offshoot of my performance series. At a certain point, I was just kind of scouting out local talent and it just made sense to start a more formal competition. Some fantastic kids came forward to audition and at the reception, the folks at the Mondavi said they’d like to sponsor it, and it has grown exponentially since then. It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”

Downes is also the founder and director of a program called “88 Keys” that provides pianos and music education to schools. Speaking of the strange and precarious life that musicians face, she says, “I realize how lucky I am that things have lined up so well for me: to go to New York and get a record deal my second year there, the partnership with Steinway [the piano company]. What is interesting for me is to realize that it is a continuum. Everything that happens to you as a kid affects the artist you will become. And this is such a crazy life to have as a musician, so anytime that anybody comes to hear me play and writes me a check for doing so, there’s an awareness of that and a gratitude.”

When asked what she feels is the most important lesson that she can offer young performers, she says that she is trying to encourage the players to think of themselves as artists and, in particular, as communicators. “I’m trying to mentor the young musicians from the very beginning, when they’re thinking so much about technique, to think more globally about communicating to different audiences. That was something I didn’t think about till much later. At that early stage, they’re mostly just thinking about the instrument and the self.”

The artists who will join Downes on May 1 at Kohl are off and running on their careers as musicians, having won numerous awards and performed with symphonies and on radio and television. It is likely that local residents will turn out to see them in this popular series. Moy, Kohl’s executive music director, says that the free concerts have had an extremely positive response from the community. “We are seeing full (and overflowing!) houses at every event this season,” she remarks, “and the demand for our visiting artists in schools program is far greater than we are able to meet. We’re working on it!”

More information is available here.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of, a website for singers.