Lucas Richman guest conducts Long Beach Symphony Orchestra
In America, having a wide range of musical taste has always been accepted. These days, it’s even encouraged. But in Stalinist Russia, the “wrong” taste, one diverging from the party line, could put a composer in jail — or worse. When Josef Stalin’s cultural commissars heard the 1937 premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s moody, electrifying Symphony No. 5 in D minor — now a repertory staple — they doubted the enthusiastic audience really liked it. With its chromatic, dissonant style, how could they? They suspected a conspiracy of Shostakovich’s friends.
On April 25, guest conductor Lucas Richman leads the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in “Shostakovich’s Russia” at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, in which Shostakovich’s once-controversial 45-minute symphony takes up the concert’s second half.
Richman’s program opens with Beethoven’s rousing “Egmont Overture,” followed by Ernest Chausson’s rhapsodic “Poeme” for violin and orchestra, with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Roger Wilkie, serving as soloist.
“The Beethoven and Shostakovich works were politically and emotionally relevant in their time,” Richman said from his home in Bangor, Maine, “and since history repeats itself, it’s my job to help show why they are still relevant.”
For Richman, a composer as well as music director of the Knoxville and Bangor symphony orchestras, everyone hears music in a uniquely personal way. As a 20-year-old UCLA music student, Richman recalled being invited to perform one of his scores for the fiercely cerebral and abstract composer-conductor, Pierre Boulez.
“I was nervous playing one of my tonal works for him,” Richman, 51, said. “So I performed one of my darker pieces, which was an atonal stretch for me. Boulez sat on the stage, and the first thing he said was, ‘So it’s a happy piece, no?’ He was being totally serious. How we hear a piece, whether we like it or not, is completely relative to one’s personal experience.”
Richman’s education and career are firmly rooted in Los Angeles. A graduate of Taft High School in Woodland Hills, he began arranging and conducting music in his early teens. By the time he was 18, he was taking master classes with celebrated composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“I like to have a balance of creation and re-creation,” Richman said. “Performing is re-creating someone else’s work.”
A new CD, due out on Albany Records in August, will give listeners an opportunity to hear Richman’s Piano Concerto, Oboe Concerto and Three Pieces for Cello and Orchestra on a live concert recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Two of the scores were premiered by conductor Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony.
As a music director, Richman said he looks for “honesty of emotion” in programming contemporary works. Recently, he led the Bangor Symphony in Jennifer Higdon’s moving “Blue Cathedral” (2000). His own Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, “The Healer,” reportedly became an instant hit with Knoxville audiences in 2006, and has since been successfully performed elsewhere.
“Drums have always been a vehicle for expression and therapy,” Richman said, “and the healer was there to remind everybody our heartbeat forms a universal pulse, actually a waltz. Technique is important, but what touches people is emotion. Sometimes the most simple use of materials can be the most profound and moving.”
Before leaving to become assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1998, Richman helped create the music program at Milken Community High School. He’s also a former conductor of L.A.’s Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, whose alumni include André Previn and Michael Tilson-Thomas.
Richman said engaging younger generations of listeners has been a high priority for most of his career. In 2010, composer John Williams selected him to lead an 11-week “Star Wars” tour of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. For Richman, it became an effective vehicle for reaching thousands of kids and their families.
“Williams is an inspiration,” Richman said. “His symphonic work for ‘Star Wars’ is one of the soundtracks of our lives, right from that instantly recognizable opening B-flat chord. The audience response was amazing. Yes, there were visuals, but it was about the music. An English horn, flute or steel-drum solo — the cameras showed those instruments, and kids came up later and said, ‘That was so cool. I want to learn how to do that.’ For many of them, it was their first exposure to a symphony orchestra.”
Richman’s own film credits include working on Marvin Hamlisch’s score for “Behind the Candelabra,” an HBO biopic about Liberace.
But his 2011 Grammy for conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Christopher Tin’s classical/world fusion album, “Calling All Dawns” — the first time a Grammy had ever been awarded to a composition for a video game — may be the most vivid example of Richman’s musical open-mindedness.
“It’s much in keeping with my musical interests,” he said. “There can be a meeting of contemporary and traditional classical music worlds. People are eager for that, because performing music of our time is just as important as performing works written 250 years ago.”