Q&A: ‘Holes in the Sky’ breaks boys club with female classical musicians

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Holes in the Sky' at Sixth & I (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — For centuries, the world of classical music has been a proverbial boys club: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Herrmann, Bernstein, Williams.

Now, it’s the ladies’ turn with “Holes in the Sky,” a pioneering national tour that launches this Saturday night at Sixth & I in Chinatown presented by Washington Performing Arts.

“This is all music by women,” pianist Lara Downes told WTOP. “I’m doing a bunch of solo stuff with everything from Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and Jodi Mitchell to world premieres by composers who are living and working today. It’s very genre-fluid, all over the musical map.”

The project is spearheaded by Downes, whose “America Again” was named one of NPR’s “10 Albums that Saved 2016” and whose follow-up “For Lenny” won the 2017 Classical Recording Foundation Award. The live show will also feature Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens, star of CMT’s “Nashville” and recipient of the 2017 MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

“Of everyone I know, we are so closely aligned in our musical vision,” Downes said. “We come from different parts of the musical landscape, but we both share this obsessive desire to retell the story of American music by uncovering hidden voices and fitting all the parts together in unexpected ways. When we encountered each other’s work a few years ago, there was this immediate kismet. We love working together. … Every single time, magic happens.”

The national tour is timed with the release of a new album of the same name, featuring collaborations with singer/songwriter Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, cellist Leyla McCalla, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, jazz singer Magos Herrera, vocalist Hila Plitmann and the urban youth vocal ensemble Musicality.

“It’s three generations of American women coming together,” Downes said. “This has been the craziest making of an album. I’ve put on so many miles putting this together. I traveled to North Carolina, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, L.A. It was quite the road trip. … Some of these people I’ve been working with for a long time, some I’ve really admired, some like Judy Collins are just icons, so I just did something crazy brave and reached out out-of-the-blue.”

Why did such an eclectic group of musicians agree to participate?

“There’s something about this project that really spoke to all of the women,” Downes said. “This concept of collaboration, of honoring the past and celebrating the future, it’s about legacy, it’s about sisterhood, it’s about all of these voices. When we’re talking about women who were writing music in the 1920s and 1930s, these are voices that needed to be heard.”

In addition to voices of the past, you’ll also hear the future.

“Young ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt High School are going to join us for a wonderful song cycle set to text by phenomenal women, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Maya Angelou,” Downes said. “That’s really exciting because I love working with young artists and bridging this generation gap as well as the genre divide. It’s going to be a very exciting, inspirational and joyful show. It’s the first time that much of this music is being heard anywhere in the world.”

Fittingly, the endeavor benefits PLAN International’s “Because I am a Girl” initiative.

“Everything I do as a musician and as a human is based on the belief that music and art are essential to the lives of human beings,” Downes said. “There are also other things essential to the lives of human beings like food, water, health care and education. So with this project I’ve reached out of my world of the arts to connect with organizations who are doing the rest of the work to support young girls and women across the world. PLAN International is working around the world trying to ensure that girls have a right to an education and to a future.”

Such organizations didn’t exist when she was an aspiring musician.

“Coming up when I did, most everyone I was looking to for guidance were all men,” Downes said. “Through conservatory and the beginnings of my career, I always had men around me. So it’s very thrilling when I see that I’m serving as a role model for young girls. In fact, I was at a big music conference in Detroit and the mom of one of the young girls came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know these girls watch everything you do. … You are just a light for them.'”

Which brings us full circle to the title “Holes in the Sky,” which comes from a poem written by Georgia O’Keefe back when she was a young woman: “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky. I want to love as hard as I can.”

“It’s a quote from this letter that she wrote to her best friend,” Downes said. “She was just starting to see her future, she had her very first art show, she met the love of her life, and she’s writing about all the things that she wants her life to be, this vision of this big, full life. That quote just caught me: ‘I want music that makes holes in the sky.’ That really spoke to me, how to open up your sky and make things that are just powerful and life-changing.”

She hopes the tour will prove similarly life changing for all involved.

“You’re going to be the first to hear some of this music that’s just so incredible,” Downes said. “The energy in the room at Sixth & I is going to be something really special. This is the launch of something big. It’s not just a tour, it’s not just an album, I really feel like it’s a movement that’s going to be bringing people together across so many different lines, interests and backgrounds. So come and be with us to get it all started! It’s going to be a celebration.”

Find more details on the “Holes in the Sky” website. Hear our full chat with Lara Downes below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Lara Downes (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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