Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: 'Ben Seni Variations'

Doug Richards, composer & conductor
Jan. 24, Virginia Commonwealth University

Doug Richards, the long-tenured jazz composer and bandleader based at Virginia Commonwealth University, has mined some unexpected sources in recent compositions. In 2008, Richards introduced “Expansions on ‘A Maré Encheu,’ ” a reworking of a Brazilian folk song for orchestra and children’s chorus. Last year, he premiered “Ben Seni Variations,” a modern jazz concerto grosso based on a Turkish folk song.

The premiere took place in Ankara, the Turkish capital, in celebration of the country’s first university jazz studies program, at Hacettepe University State Conservatory; the program is directed by VCU alumnus Emre Kartari.

Now, the “Ben Seni Variations” has received its U.S. premiere before a full house at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center, with the VCU Symphony Orchestra and Montreal-based Ensemble Appassionata accompanying nine soloists: Ara Topouzian, playing the kanun, a Turkish lap harp similar to a dulcimer; trumpeter-fluegelhorn player John D’earth; saxophonist Skip Gailes; pianist Bob Hallahan; guitarist Adam Larabee; vibraphonist Jon Metzger; bassist Victor Dvorkin; and drummers Howard Curtis and Emre Kartari.

“Ben Seni,” conducted by Richards, shared the program with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”), in which the VCU Symphony and Ensemble Appassionata were conducted by Daniel Myssyk.

Before Richards’ variations were played, Ayça Gunduz Kartari (drummer Kartari’s wife) sang the original tune, “Beni Seni Sevdigimi Dunyalara Bildirdim,” a plaintive or yearning romance whose modal harmonies and complex rhythms struck Richards as fertile material for extended orchestral treatment.

The variations, which run about half an hour, are elaborately orchestrated – the stage of Vlahcevic Concert Hall has rarely been so packed with musicians – and sometimes rather densely so. Much of the scoring for orchestral winds and strings was barely audible in a performance dominated by amplified, high-energy soloists. (“Beni Seni”was being recorded at the concert; the microphones presumably picked up a lot that listeners’ ears missed.)

What I could hear of the orchestration had a rather cinematic quality, with both vivid and subtle coloristic effects, and more than a few nods toward Stravinsky in its treatments of harmony and rhythm. Among the solos, Topouzian’s kanun sounded idiomatically Middle Eastern, while the other featured instruments gravitated toward “straight-ahead” modern jazz style. The most striking set of variations comes fairly late in the piece, in a lengthy exchange among the vibraphonist and two drummers.

The soloists, most of whom were reprising the parts they played in the premiere in Turkey, include several musicians who’ve long worked with Richards as students and teaching/performing colleagues. It sounds as though the composer crafted the parts played by D’earth, Gailes, Hallahan, Larabee, Dvorkin and Curtis with their personalities and musical strengths very much in mind.

Whether the piece “travels” into the hands of other solo players as well as it travels geographically and stylistically remains to be heard.