Lara Downes has been thinking about those newly colorized black-and-white photos from the last century. For Downes, a concert pianist and champion of under-appreciated composers, those photos remind us the past was filled with living, breathing people with similar dreams and hardships as our own.
Downes’ appearance at a Gardner Museum event honoring Thomas McKeller, a young black elevator attendant in Boston who, 100 years ago, posed for iconic John Singer Sargent works, could have the same impact: Adding life, nuance and complexity to an individual few know anything about.
“(Visiting Gardner performing arts curator) Helga (Davis) came to me looking for musical voices of that era that could be part of the event’s framework and our connection has worked out so beautifully,” Downes said ahead of the Thursday event. “The Thomas McKeller story is one I didn’t know before so it aligns so well with the music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds and all these voices that were constrained by opportunity and access.”
In Boston and nationally, Downes has relished the increasing opportunity to celebrate the repertoire of Price and Bonds, two pioneering African American composers from the early 20th century — Downes’ piano performance at the Gardner will be paired with singer Davóne Tines’ baritone plus dance with choreography by Levi Marsman.
The work of Price, Bonds and other marginalized composers has experienced a minor renaissance in recent years. Downes has been at the heart of this fresh appreciation. When musician and musical historian Rhiannon Giddens put together a concert series focused on black composers with Boston Pops last year, Giddens recruited Downes to take part. In July, Downes — who has released a series of EPs of Price’s work — continues her quest and will make her Chicago Symphony debut with Price’s Piano Concerto.
“Thanks to digital streaming, a lot of people can hear this music, lots of piano students can now buy the music, and all the sudden you can hear Florence Price pieces at student recitals all over the country,” Downes said. “I gave a talk at a large convention of piano teachers last fall and I did a presentation of female composers. At the end of my talk, I looked out at this sea of teachers and said, ‘Raise your hand if any of your students are girls?’ Every hand went up. I said, ‘Great, now give them something to learn that shows them something of themselves, of what they can become.’”
Downes wants to foster a repertoire revolution. That doesn’t mean no Chopin or Mozart, but it means putting staples alongside overlooked composers who are women or people of color. And she knows solely looking to the major orchestras for that change isn’t enough.
“Orchestras programming more women is a huge shift that needs to happen,” she said. “But the change came from the opposite end of the spectrum. We need to find a piece by Florence Price or Margaret Bonds or any number of living composers, and give them to 10-year-old piano students.”
Downes, Gardner curator Davis, musician Giddens and a handful of others have nurtured the resistance, but for it to bloom around the world artists and audiences, teachers and students need to embrace the power of new and lost voices.
“Meeting Thomas McKeller,” featuring Lara Downes and other artists, at Calderwood Hall, Thursday. Tickets: $10-$15, gardnermuseum.org.