Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony Pops

with Great American Music Ensemble,
Greater Richmond Children’s Choir,
Doug Richards conducting
Jan. 12, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Doug Richards, the longtime jazz-master At Virginia Commonwealth University, marshalled one of the largest instrumental ensembles heard at a Richmond Symphony concert in years – a nearly full-size orchestra to supplement his Great American Ensemble, a 15-piece jazz orchestra – plus the 40 voices of the Pro Arte Choir, senior component of Hope Armstrong Erb’s Greater Richmond Children’s Choir, to introduce one of his most ambitious compositions, "Expansions on ‘A Maré Encheu’."

This "whale," as he termed it, is born of a minnow: Heitor Villa-Lobos’ brief piano setting of "A Maré Encheu," a traditional tune sung by children in Villa-Lobos’ native Brazil. (VCU commissioned Richards’ piece for "Experiencing Villa-Lobos," a festival of composer’s music to be staged in March.)

Given the tune’s Brazilian origin and Richards’ inclination toward Latin American rhythms – heard elsewhere in this program in his settings of Vernon Duke’s "April in Paris" as a tango and Jerome Kern’s "Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine" as a samba – one might have expected "A Maré Encheu" to emerge as a Latin fantasia. In fact, the quarter-hour "Expansions" grew as much from Richards’ roots as from those of the song.

If forced to characterize the piece in a couple of words, I would choose the words "impressionist" and "blues" – the former for the vast palette of tone colors that Richards summons from reed, brass and percussion instruments, the latter for his harmonic and rhythmic template. His work clearly echoes the long-form pieces of Duke Ellington, a lineage acknowledged in this program’s opening selection, Ellington’s three-movement masterpiece "Night Creatures."

The heart of "A Maré Encheu," an extended drum solo, played by GAME’s drummer, Harold Summey, is couched in an Afro-Latin dialect; so are the choral riffs on the children’s song. The winds, however, blow the tune out of its native latitude, toward ports of modern jazz and Euro-American orchestration; in that, Richards follows a route somewhat like the one taken by Villa-Lobos.

That’s a first impression of the piece, tempered by the detail-unfriendly acoustics of the Landmark Theater and by the audial information overload of hearing "A Maré Encheu" at the end of a very eventful 2½-hour program.

The preceding 2¼ hours showcased Richards’ highly imaginative, sometimes quirky, takes on a succession of jazz standards, ranging from Ellington ("I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good," "I’m Just a Lucky So and So," "Sophisticated Lady") and George Gershwin ("Our Love Is Here to Stay," "They All Laughed") to Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies"), Fats Waller ("Ain’t Misbehavin’ "), Ray Henderson ("Bye, Bye, Blackbird") and Glenn Miller, who, in the hereafter, is either chuckling or sputtering over Richard’s prismatic arrangement of Joe Garland’s "In the Mood."

Sharon Clark, a Washington-based singer blessed with a smoky mezzo and unusually subtle rhythmic sensibility, was featured in half a dozen selections, most effectively in "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "Ain’t Misbehavin’."

Saxophonists Marty Nau and Luis Hernandez and trumpeters John D’earth and Rex Richardson soared in numerous solos, Richardson arguably grabbing solo honors in a grand tour of trumpet technique in W.C. Handy’s "Aunt Hagar’s Blues" (a movement from from Richards’ "Intercontinental Concerto," introduced last year in Melbourne, Australia).

And the Pro Arte choristers reprised a couple of arrangements Richards wrote for them (in exchange for piano lessons from Erb), including a "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" that promises to have legs as well as wings, becoming a staple of the children’s-chorus repertory.