"Any of us who have traveled far from home, we've probably experienced that moment when we found a temporary home in some cafe, and certainly there's such a history of cafes sheltering artists and writers throughout centuries. But it's also a metaphorical place, it's an imaginary place and it's a place where a lot of different stories can come together."
That's how pianist Lara Downes describes the concept behind her new recording, Exiles' Cafe, which she believes is a real place for a lot of people, including herself.
"The idea of exiles came to me through a few different channels," she recalls. "I'd started investigating the music of composers who were exiled from Europe during World War II and who went to Hollywood and started writing film music. And that to me was a fascinating story, both musically and personally."
For several years, after leaving California, Lara and her sisters traveled Europe living a very nomadic lifestyle, an experience that she says also impacted this new release. "Oftentimes we were studying in one place and living in another or traveling. I remember, really clearly, sitting in the car with my mom and two sisters and driving and it was nighttime and feeling like that car was a bubble and it had my world inside it. And that feeling — it's just a very deep feeling. And I think that that's a feeling that anyone who has ever been exiled would know — that feeling of being isolated in this little bubble, wherever you are in the world.
"And I started thinking about exile — how it has affected the world of art and music and how the world of art and music has affected the experience of displacement throughout the centuries. It opened up so many things and exposed so much wonderful music, and it all came together in this recording project."
The title track, "Tango from the Exiles' Cafe", was written by New York composer Michael Sahl. Lara Downes remembers being captivated by the work and its title the very first time she heard it. "I imagine this woman who is far away from home and she's been forced to leave the place she's from. And she's in the cafe and she remembers the time when she was young and beautiful and everything was beautiful and she was dancing the tango with her lover and many better days."
When Austrian composer Erich Korngold came to America during World War II he redefined Hollywood film music. Lara says his compelling story attracted her to his second sonata, "The sonata is a tremendous work, a magnificent work... virtuosic and profound and he wrote it when he was 13 years old. And I wanted to feature that as almost the center of this whole idea and story — but it's also a long piece of music...so in interest of balance and to include all of the composers I wanted to include, we were only able to put the first movement on the disc."
Lara Downes has a special connection to Bela Bartok's three Hungarian folk songs that open this new recording, "My very first piano teacher, when I was four years old, was from the Ukraine and she was very drawn to Bartok's music. And I remember her giving me the little Ukrainian Folk Songs that he wrote... and singing for me the actual folk songs that they were based on. That was huge, because we all learn that Bartok was using folk music in his writing. But to have your piano teacher singing the actual songs for you in the native language was something pretty direct. I've always loved those early Bartok works."
Kurt Weill was among the first wave of prominent German Jewish refugees to come to America in the 1930s. His modern style of stark realism and profound humanity revolutionized the American musical theater. "Lost in the Stars," is the title song from his last work for the stage, written the year before he died.
Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan have all recorded this reflective piece. "Yeah, I've always loved that song. And it was his last show. I think more than anything the lyrics to that song just encapsulate this whole story, this whole experience of exile — 'I've been walking in the night and the day till my heart turns weary and my head turns grey. And sometimes it seems as if God has gone away and left us out here in the stars.' And I just think about all the composers on this record — that feeling, the feeling I experienced in the car that night...feeling in a bubble, feeling a little bit lost under a big sky...to me, that tells the story very well."
For more from Lara Downes, including video and audio, take a look at the Classical Notes blog.