From Molehill to Mountain 

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When a musical performance takes flight, its seeming effortlessness masks the reality that every soaring minute onstage is weighted with hours of intense preparation. This is easy to forget from the comfort of an audience seat; but for composer Doug Richards, rushing to complete a score for dozens of waiting musicians, it's a hard and unyielding truth.

The deadline is looming for his Jan. 13 concert with the Wachovia Securities Symphony Pops, featuring the debut of his ambitious expansions on a miniature by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The original, for solo piano, lasts about a minute and a half. Richards' version, for jazz band, orchestra and children's choir, is nearly 10 times as long.

It's a situation as familiar as it is uncomfortable for Richards, who quotes his hero Duke Ellington: "Without a deadline, baby, I wouldn't do nothing." Then again, Duke never composed on a computer, a non-trivial left brain/right brain feat that Richards is attempting for the first time -- with maddening results. The program he's using has a playback function, which tends to produce instrument sounds nothing like their real-world counterparts and pitches the percussion parts to clash irritatingly with everything else.

And mallet percussion is a vital part of the work — marimbas and xylophones not only lend sonority appropriate to the music's South American roots, but also augment the sound when the VCU String Orchestra performs the piece in the venue for which it was originally planned, the university's international music festival "Experiencing Villa-Lobos" (March 27-29).

"There are few players in [VCU's] string program," Richards says. "They are still young, and the strings often have the most difficult parts. Doubling their line with the percussion makes sure that it is heard and keeps it from being too hard to pull off technically."

It helps that the original Villa-Lobos composition ("Guia Pratico Book I: Number 2 — A Mare Encheu") is charmingly straightforward. It's a student exercise based on a traditional children's song, starting with an arpeggiated fanfare, followed by an impressionistic melody that alternates with a sharply rhythmic flamenco-tinged section. The piece ends with an up-tumbling line that pauses briefly in a cloud of dissonance before resolving in a clear and logical chord.

Richards builds his own musical structures on Villa-Lobos' foundation. "I don't use his fanfare," he says, "but expand it and make it applicable to the forces I have, and use it as a guidepost, to announce an upcoming major event in the music. The harmonies are very, very simple; I used those for the kids in the choir but added quite a few other layers. There is a polytonal structure superimposed throughout, drawing on the idea of the title ["The Tide Flowed"]. It's subliminal. If someone gets the impression it sounded sealike, I'm glad, but it's not meant to make anyone seasick."

Expanding on the Latin American wellsprings of the piece, the penultimate section is Afro-Cuban, with improvised trumpet parts (John D'earth and Rex Richardson will play in the January concert, while Marcus Tenney, a young player Richards much admires, may take one of the parts for the festival performance).

The ending is a surprise, Richards says. Echoing the dissonance-to-resolution finish of the original, every available note sounds in a single, all-encompassing 12-tone chord from which emerges the interval that is the harmonic nucleus of the piece. A pure expression carved from a confusion of possibilities is not merely a clever closing device; it is the essence of art. S

Doug Richards and the Great American Music Ensemble, along with the Greater Richmond Children's Choir (led by Hope Erb), performs for the Wachovia Securities Symphony Pops Saturday, Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $35-$60. Call 262-8003 or visit www.richmondsymphony.com.


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