At least, that’s what it seemed like in the opening movement of Lucas Richman’s “Symphony: This Will Be Our Reply,” completed this year and receiving its world premiere in the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra & Chorus’ performance at the Oak Ridge Performing Arts Center at Oak Ridge High School. The title comes from a speech by Leonard Bernstein about how artists can and should respond to the violence in the world.
The first movement, titled “Intensity,” is about finding music and beauty in the face of a world on the brink of coming apart. The ominous opening moments in the percussion, winds and brass were the sounds of violence and disorder, out of which emerged peaceful chamber music in the form of a double quartet: two each of first violins, second violins, violas and cellos – the innermost ring of the string sections of the orchestra.
Gradually, the chamber music won converts in the rest of the orchestra as instrument sections joined in the quartet’s theme. By the end of the movement the chamber unit had won the battle as a lovely harmony developed. As music, it is a brilliant concept, and it was carried out well by the Oak Ridge Symphony, one of the three orchestras in the consortium that commissioned the piece.
Having won the battle for peace and beauty, the orchestra eased into the second movement, marked “Beauty.” It was one of the most exquisite pieces of music I have ever heard. It began with a solo clarinet, with a quiet underpinning in the low strings. There was gorgeous playing by the oboe, horn, clarinet and English horn. A high-pitched bell sounded; then came the resonance of a Tibetan singing bowl at calming intervals. The flute and harp played a sweet duet. The collective sound was comforting, moving and intensely emotional, like a prayer one whispers to oneself.
The third movement, “Devotion,” sung by the Oak Ridge Chorus joining the orchestra, was the “Va’anachnu” text from the Jewish liturgy, combined with a “Tikkum Olam” text written by Richman. “But we bend our knees and bow down and express thanks before the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.” It continued with a declaration of what can be done in the face of violence.
This is, without doubt, Richman’s finest work to date. It brought me to tears. It is destined to own a place in the repertoire.
The balance of the concert was Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 in E Flat,” Op. 55, known as the “Eroica Symphony.” I can’t imagine any other piece of music that could more fittingly follow Richman’s wonderful, astonishingly beautiful music.
The “Eroica” was a revolution in music itself. Nothing like it had ever been heard before.
For the most part, the orchestra played it well. There were missed notes here and there, but the message of the music came through.
Congratulations to Oak Ridge Civic Music Association music director and conductor Dan Allcott and chorus director Jaclyn Johnson for the fine preparation and execution of Richman’s superb symphony. Getting a new work of music into one’s head is only the beginning of the process. Performing it as well as it was performed in Oak Ridge Saturday night is a significant achievement.
Most of all, congratulations to composer Richman, former music director of the Knoxville Symphony. I think everyone present felt the special nature of this music.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth:
…But the newest and most exciting musical adventure of the evening was Richman’s own original composition — “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth,” with guest pianist Jeffery Biegel. When the conductor explained the thought behind the three movements of his piece, titled “To One’s Self,” “To One’s World” and “To One’s Spirit,” and how it was about the soul’s inner journey and finding one’s metaphysical place in the universe, it all sounded a bit New Agey and precious and one almost expected them to roll out a Moog synthesizer or perhaps a sitar instead of a grand piano.
But surprise, surprise his composition — starting with a clarion trumpet fanfare — was every bit as robust, focused and “American” as any of the other pieces played that evening. With a very bluesy Gershwin-esque theme running through it, the composition was multi-layered and textured; at times melodic and romantic at other times dissonant, dramatic, challenging and fragmented with so much going on — including some clattering percussives — it was easy to lose one’s way. That seemed to be the point, actually, and let’s face it, who hasn’t been there.
But again and again, Richman returns to his core theme — da-da-dee,dum,dee dum — and it was like seeing a light through the forest leading us back to something familiar and safe. Biegel’s commanding piano also was a well-lit pathway through this lovely, evocative piece and both he and the composer received a well-earned standing ovation as did the whole orchestra for interpreting this and the evening’s other compositions played so beautifully.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth:
Will a composer’s new music hold up for the long term? If popularity with audiences is one of the criteria, then Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conductor and composer Lucas Richman’s brand new “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth,” which made its world premiere Thursday at the Tennessee Theatre with pianist Jeffrey Biegel as the moral protagonist, certainly qualified. In today’s multimedia world, it may be expected that new music be cinematic — movie music, if you will. Richman’s concerto was that, too. Some might consider that to be a derogatory quality for classical music with a serious motive, but Bernstein, Copland, Glass, Kodaly, Prokofiev and Shostakovich all wrote movie music. In the jazzy second movement, one could hear more than a few reflections of Bernstein, maybe even Stravinsky. But there was also a lot of Richman, too. The music was a lot more than an homage to the composers who have influenced him. The first movement had thick, rich textures and pulsating rhythms, offset by an introspective, lovely melody in the piano that had whiffs of Rachmaninoff. Biegel, who clearly loved playing this piece, played it brilliantly throughout. But nowhere was he better than in the gorgeous piano solo that opened the second movement and dissolved into jazzy syncopations in the orchestra. In the third movement, Biegel’s tender, delicate playing of another solo set up more contrasts with the orchestra. Will Richman’s concerto stand the test of time? Only time will tell. But it was more than worth being able to say you were there when it came to life.
11-19-09- Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant:
“The half hour composition, with the celebrated poet [Jack Prelutsky] narrating, proved to be a hit with the young audiences at the four youth concerts and the Sunday Family Festival Concert, all under the enthusiastic direction of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s Assistant Conductor, Philip Mann. Richman’s clever orchestration mirrored Prelutsky’s imaginative texts and gave the young listeners a wonderful taste of the varied textures of orchestral sounds.”
Summer, 2007 – Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra: The Clearing:
“The writing in Mr. Richman’s Oboe Concerto is very well suited to the oboe. The flowing melodies are very attractive and fit the lyrical and melancholic tendencies of the oboe so nicely. The technical passages, although difficult at times, seem to fall under the fingers very comfortably. What a beautiful and alluring addition to the oboe repertoire. I recommend this captivating composition to everyone. Bravo Mr. Richman!”
Are we the past of Peggy Stuart Coolidge’s Pioneer Dances when settlers pushed westward, settling a continent? Are we the vast industrial nation, struggling to welcome all to our shores that Antonin Dvorak wrote about in his Symphony No. 9 in 1892?
Or, are we the individual reflected in the broader society — the one who searches for and finds himself in conductor Lucas Richman’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: “In Truth.”
This is a question we Americans most often ask ourselves through books, plays and the visual arts, rather than classical music. The answer, illuminated by these pieces that music director Richman chose for the first concert of the 120th season, is that we, as Americans, are all these things at the same time — individuals wrestling to live in but not be defined by society, imbued with our past, and because of the Internet, ever aware of how people outside our boundaries see us.
The soul of Sunday’s concert was Richman’s own “In Truth,” written for pianist Jeffrey Biegel. The composer might not have intended the three movements — To One’s Self, To One’s World and To One’s Spirit — to be experienced as “The Ages of Man,” but concertgoers may have experienced that way.
The joy and tumult of the opening movement sounded like a child growing into a teenager and then an uncertain adult. The second movement, which began with a piano cadenza, moved this individual into society and the demands of defining oneself in it, living in it and aging through it.
The final movement began with an instrumental setting of a line from Psalm 145: “The Lord is near to all who call to Him — to all who call to Him in truth.” The piece ended with a harmonization that balances the outer self and the inner spirit.
Biegel inhabited this music as if he had written it himself. The pianist and orchestra intricately wove Richman’s composition into a vivid tapestry that wrapped the audience in the truth of what it means to be a human navigating the world.
It was obvious from Sunday’s performance that Biegel, who last appeared with the BSO in 2005 when he memorably performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Richman share a deep musical bond. Their work in this concert will long be remembered as a high point in Richman’s time with the symphony.
10-13 – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth:
One immediately sensed that the volume level in the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre at intermission of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts last week was quite a bit higher than usual following the occasion of the world premiere of Maestro Lucas Richman’s new piano concerto, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth. “Abuzz” might be a good word to describe the chatter intensity, as in–”the lobby was abuzz” with comments flung here and there by both experienced listeners and those that merely know what they like; abuzz, because the work and the performance had engendered a lot of mostly positive opinions–and of those, mostly of surprise and delight that the new work was so accessible and entertaining. I can’t honestly say I was surprised having heard Richman’s smaller works over the years during his tenure in Knoxville, but I was struck by the boldness and complexity of the work.
Richman’s concerto is–as are all the other works of his I have heard–unabashedly tonal. While he does not shy away from atonality and dissonance for effect, those moments seem to exist as expressionistic side trips of disturbance, with the gravity of lyricism inevitably returning a passage to equilibrium. Richman’s textural constructions are not consciously derivative, but one can’t avoid hearing the stylistic references that have been absorbed, chewed-on, and reinterpreted, something not really surprising in a composer who has been immersed in them as a constantly working conductor. And, despite Richman’s own programmatic explanations and descriptions of the thematic underpinnings, and the inclusion of “In Truth” in the title, the work ultimately succeeds on its ability to engage the listener abstractly with a balance of textures that is complex and enticing, but not esoteric. And, Richman knows a thing or two about theatre, specifically how to end a movement with attention-getting energy.
The concerto’s three movements are pleasantly extroverted, with the piano and orchestra on equal footing. Instances in the first movement where the two seemed at cross-purposes were actually appealing and welcomed, for they always seemed to resolve themselves in intriguing textures. Likewise, the keyboard cadenza that opens the second movement begins gently, but the movement goes off on a tangent–an unexpectedly jazzy, motion-filled turn into what Richman described as “honky-tonk ragtime gone wrong.”
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel’s performance was marked by what seemed to be perfectly tuned phrasing that clearly demonstrated his confidence in the work and in the composer on the podium. Biegel’s energy, emotion, and precision in the final movement came as no surprise.
5-1-01 – Dachau Lied:
“The Holocaust has become one of the most frequently invoked catalysts for composition in the 20th century–and now, beyond. It is also one of the most problematic. The risk of not doing justice to an event of such unbelievable horror must weigh like a heavy stone upon a composer’s mind…Those challenges were present in the “Remembrances: Reflections on the Holocaust” program from conductor Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom on Sunday night–laudably ambitious in scope, serious in tone, but only variably winning in content. In some cases, the composers struck a nerve. Lucas Richman’s “Dachau Lied” expanded Herbert Zipper’s song “Arbeit Macht Frei” into a painfully sarcastic Weillian series of marches, with a narration (performed by his father, actor Peter Mark Richman) that followed the example of Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw.”
10-21-2015 – Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra: The Clearing
“The recording’s most successful work by far—an enjoyable and admirable work—is the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra (2006). Subtitled The Clearing it is a seventeen-minute, single-movement tone poem that seems to begin in medias res. Commissioned by Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, the Symphony’s principal oboe, The Clearing refers to the peace evoked in Psalm 23. DeAlmeida sings with an astonishing tone, holding exquisitely sculpted high notes, each phrase blooming delicately. A neoclassical canon between the oboe and the bassoon introduces the middle section, which is darker and more agitated than the pastoral opening. Its simplicity recalls Virgil Thomson’s film music. Gestures toward dark climactic moments resolve unexpectedly into quiet passages until they finally open into a passage that almost abandons the tightly wound motivic repetitions—but it remains disciplined and Apollonian rather than permitting the underground Dionysian energy to flow freely. A slow solo cadenza then unfolds a gorgeous melody, a kind of developing thought that aims for peace and a higher understanding. According to Richman, this passage “intones the entire psalm in the form of a prayer-aria.” More and more clans of the orchestra enter until a slowly rocking waltz takes shape. To conclude, a faster, vaguely oriental dance emerges with strong percussion and an ostinato figure, a Dionysian bacchanal that sounds like a draft from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila.”
10-28-2009 – An Overture to Blanche
“Richman opened the concert with one of his own works, An Overture to Blanche, an 11-minute concert expansion on part of his incidental music for the recent Clarence Brown Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. As a solo tenor sax passage sets the stage, I found myself pleasantly immersed in the smoky, jazzy environs of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Just as quickly, I found myself falling for the musical seduction of overlapping instrumental voices and tonalities. Seductive as well was the contrast of Blanche’s naive vulnerability via a simple string quartet melody, with the trumpet’s raw, brutish depiction of Stanley Kowalski.”
12-15-08 – Reindeer Variations:
“We were prepared to chuckle, but we weren’t prepared to hear so many delightful variations of orchestrations: sometimes melodic with exquisite grace; sometimes playful as in sparkle; sometimes jazzy and syncopated as in burlesque; and always interesting.”
3-28-08 – Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra: The Clearing:
“Conceptually, the concerto’s structure begins with a quiet, shimmering background of strings and harp setting up the opening oboe solo. DeAlmeida’s gorgeous tone is beautifully suited to being the calm, assured psalmist moving through the changing landscape before arriving at the clearing that is at the center of the concerto. Along the way, voices in the orchestra call out from the thicket of textures Richman has woven into the very interesting ensemble writing that continuously shifts from threatening, ominous images to more open spaces that allow the oboe’s delicate, linear to sing clearly. Moving from dense, complicated layering to open, translucent passages while the oboe moves forward is certainly the work of a confident composer. It is also original, thought provoking and intellectually intriguing. If there has been anything heard recently that deserved a standing ovation, Richman’s concerto and DeAlmeida’s performance, was it.”
2-17-06 – Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra: The Clearing:
“Richman’s nuanced writing for DeAlmeida captured the touching program of his concerto, namely of a youth finding strength in spirituality, represented by Psalm 23. Gorgeous writing for the oboe treated it as the vocal instrument it is in the hands of a master talent like DeAlmeida. A quietly ravishing oboe vocalese, crafted to inflections of the Hebrew text to the psalm, flowed like milk and honey.”
12-9-06 – Reindeer Variations:
“They were also involved in the next piece, Reindeer Variations by Lucas Richman…This set of variations, based on the names of Santa’s reindeer, was a little less serious but confirmed his talent for composition. At the beginning of each variation a member of the youth choir held up a sign with the name of the reindeer for whom the section was written. Hilarity was abundant, especially in the sultry (even swanky) “Vixen” variation.”