With her classical training, Lila Downs doesn’t worry about the demands of singing with an orchestra. “No, it’s more like a symphony has to adapt to us,” she said, laughing. That’s not a boast. Though she’s known primarily as a Latin/world music artist, Downs is at home in virtually any genre.
Her three-octave voice, which has been described as “cantina classical,” easily negotiates the rigors of operatic songs such as “La Llorona” and “Cruz de Olvido,” two staples of her concert repertoire. So it has been a natural progression for Downs to perform with a full orchestra. Last year, she made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, and she will join members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Donato Cabrera, in concert June 28. Accompanying Downs will be members of her band: Yayo Serka on percussion, Rafael Gomez on guitars, Sinuhé Padilla on guitar and jarana (a small guitar-like instrument), and George Saenz Jr. on accordion.
For Downs, the move to symphonic work was serendipitous. “We were invited to do a show like this in Mexico, so we had arrangements made and really enjoyed the experience,” she said, speaking from her home in Oaxaca. “Then we decided to do more. As it happened, the San Francisco Symphony looked us up and wanted something special for a Day of the Dead concert, and this program worked out beautifully.”
During the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday observed from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, prayers are offered for deceased friends and family, to aid them on their journey to the afterlife. The tradition also inspired Downs’ latest disc, “Balas y Chocolate” (2015), written as usual with Paul Cohen, her husband and musical director. As with her previous eight studio albums, “Bullets and Chocolate” reflects Downs’ distinctive bicultural existence while growing up in Minnesota and Mexico as the daughter of an American professor and a Mexican artist.
But “Balas y Chocolate” took on an even more personal dimension, when Cohen was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition (he has since been given a much improved prognosis). “We thought he might die, so the album is a reaction to this crisis,” Downs said. Rather than despair, they decided to face down the unknown. “It’s hard to explain this duality that Mexican and Latin American cultures have toward death,” she said. “It’s something in our essence. Death is viewed as a natural progression of life.”
With upbeat songs such as the rollicking cumbia “Humito de Copal,” which leads off the disc (and which she has described as “an offering to the dead”), Downs and company shake away any sadness. “This album is more of a state of being,” she said. “It was conceived in a more organic way, much more so than with our previous discs. I love that. I had never thought of our music that way. This album is more festive; it’s not just about the fear of death. It also makes you happy.”
Songs from “Balas y Chocolate,” along with her signature numbers such as “La Iguana” and “Zapata Se Queda,” will be on the CSO program. The concert will open with Danzón No. 2, a contemporary classical work by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. Commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it received its premiere in 1994 by the university’s Orquesta Filarmonica. Cabrera selected Danzón No. 2, which has been popularized by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. “Donato has done a lot of work with students and is familiar with many other genres of music,” Downs said. “He’s a natural for this program.”
Downs and Cabrera, resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, first collaborated on this program last November. “Lila Downs brings an incredible energy and presence to every word she sings and every note she plays,” said Cabrera, who’s also music director of the California Symphony and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. “I’m very excited to be working with her and her band again on these wonderful orchestral arrangements of her music.”
As a student at the University of Minnesota, Downs studied anthropology and voice, and at one point, thought she might want to pursue a career in opera. So these symphonic concerts bring her full circle. “As a child, I used to do musicals, and right now, we are working on something that’s an opera in some ways,” she said. “Something happens when you’re close to 50 [she turns 48 in September]. You do revisit your past and go back to your childhood. And discover what was wonderful about it.”
Note: All ticketholders are invited to a special post-concert Q&A session with Lila Downs, hosted by the CSO Latino Alliance, in the Grainger Ballroom.
TOP: Lila Downs performs with the San Francisco Symphony, led by Donato Cabrera, in concert last November. | Photo: Mercedes Romero/SFS