There are two astounding things about Richmond composer and educator Doug Richards: the epic scale of his conceptions and the modest circuit of his renown.
Jazz critic Martin Williams wrote in 1986: "Doug has developed an absolutely unique and brilliant way of writing for large jazz ensembles. Record companies, wake up." Twenty-five years on, Richards remains largely unheralded while record labels slip into a digitally induced coma.
The happy result of this injustice — at least for local audiences — is that the American debut of Richards' new "Bon Seni Variations" will be held at Virginia Commonwealth University's Singleton Center, not the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall.
The piece was commissioned to celebrate Turkey's first state-approved conservatory jazz program, founded by VCU graduate and former Richards student Emre Katari. "I received a handsome [VCU grant] package to compose the piece, bring the guest soloists to Ankara for week, rehearse and perform," Richards says. Many of the same musicians, along with Canadian classical string Ensemble Appassionata, will be featured in the Richmond performance of the work. In Your Ear Studio will record the event.
"Ben Seni Variations" is a concerto grosso, a musical form within which a small group — in this case a jazz octet plus a kanun, a Turkish autoharp — plays the role of soloist within a larger orchestral context. Many of the players are veterans of the Ankara premiere, including current VCU adjuncts, saxophonist Skip Gailes, bassist Victor Dvoskin and guitarist Adam Larrabee, as well as former jazz program instructor and pianist Bob Hallahan, now at James Madison University. Also on tap is long-absent and much missed drummer Howard Curtis, now a professor in Graz, Austria. Emre Katari is flying in from Ankara to play a second drum set. Trumpeter John D'earth replaces Rex Richardson, who is spending the semester as artist in residence in Manchester, England. "We also have a marvelous vibist, Jon Metzger," Richards says. "And we have a young kanunist from Detroit, Ara Toupezian."
The performance will open with singer (and Katari's wife) Ayça Katari, and her a capella version of "Bon Seni," the Turkish folk song — "I was drawn to it because of its modality." Richards says. "It's in 5/8, based on a harmonic minor scale starting on the fifth degree; it's very Mideast-sounding."
During the next 30 minutes the theme mutates into a waltz, then common time and swing, with each change mirrored by various combinations of players. All of the parts collide and combine in a simultaneous recapitulation. "There are a lot of Turkish tonal colors," Richards says, "along with contrapuntal sections, European art music and a lot of jazz idiom as well."
Or, as drummer Curtis sums it up, "Doug has done it ... again." S
The VCU Symphony Orchestra, with Ensemble Appassionata, will present Dvorak's Ninth Symphony ("New World") and the American premiere of Doug Richards' "Ben Seni Variations" at the Singleton Center on Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. Admission is $5 or free with VCU student ID.