Van Richards goes pro on piano
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Clearly, the annual Classics in June concert organisers, the Kingston Chapter of Soroptimists International, think they have found a treasure worth keeping in Karl Van Richards. This year, the Florida-based, Jamaica-born musician was invited for the third consecutive time to be main pianist of the series, now in its 10th year.
I figured that Jamaican music lovers deserve more information on him than the brief paragraph in the concert's printed programme. It includes this sentence:
"He holds certificates of distinction from the Royal Schools of Music, London, England; a bachelor's degree from the University of Miami, and a master's degree in piano performance from Lynn University in Boca Raton, where, at graduation, he was bestowed the Most Outstanding Performer Award."
So, at the 2014 Classics in June concert, held at the University Chapel, Mona, on June 15, I started asking him questions. More followed by e-mail during the next week or so.
I learned that what has already become an illustrious career, even though he only turned professional four years ago, had an inauspicious start. As a five-year-old boy, he was "banging on the lovely piano" of his mother's good friend, Michelle. At least, that's how his embarrassed mother put it when she tried to stop him.
However, happily, said Richards, "Michelle would tell her to let me be and, as time passed, my mother realised that I had a natural inclination and talent for music. She bought a piano for me and enrolled me at Foster Davis School of Music, where I started formal lessons with Jean and Sheila Anderson."
After about two years with the well-known musical sisters, he switched to the studio of Ms Ruth Creightney. There, Richards said, "I progressed very quickly and very passionately, performing at every opportunity presented, whether it was at the annual Associated Board distinctions concert, events at the school, or piano recitals presented at her studio."
He was also involved in music at Wolmer's High School for Boys (with the choir), and with Cathi Levy's Little People and Teen Players Club, the groundbreaking performing arts group whose members learnt music, dance, and drama. At Wolmer's, Richards was involved in the debating club, drama club, Spanish club, School's Challenge Quiz team, and oratorical society, at different times.
At 17 years old, he migrated to the United States (US) and also won the prestigious Victoria M. Griffith Concerto competition. He subsequently appeared as a soloist as well as doing collaborative and orchestral performances around the Caribbean (Jamaica, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands), in Europe (Austria, Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and in the US.
The multifaceted Richards, an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and music director at Unity of Delray Beach, told me that, for a long time after graduating from university, he enjoyed the security of being a full-time music director at the two churches. He, therefore, did not feel pushed into becoming a professional musician.
That changed about four years ago when he met Dr Orville Lawton, director of the Ebony Chorale of the Palm Beaches. The encounter caused his life to take another major turn.
Said Richards: "My appetite was whetted with the notion of making my living as a performing musician outside the walls of the church. A substantial part of my passion now in wanting to perform increasingly more in public stems from what I feel is my duty to utilise the gifts given to me to my maximum potential."
"I hope to one day have younger musicians recount how it was that seeing me as a young black musician encouraged and inspired them to be the best they could be."
Almost certainly, Richards is already the source of that sort of inspiration and he will have further chances in the coming months. He has been appointed the official pianist for the 95th convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), to be held in Los Angeles, California, from July 20-24. Founded in 1919 in Chicago, NANM is dedicated to conserving concert music traditions within the African-American community.
Richards' duties at the convention will include performing with the concerto competition contestants and piano accompaniment at master classes and recitals/workshops. Says the musician: "I am excited at the opportunity, because the nation's premier African-American musicians will be in attendance."
Starting in the fall, Richards will be going on a nationwide tour of the US, playing collaborative music for piano and pipe organ along with Roderick Demmings, Jr, an award-winning organist, pianist and music director who also performed at Classics in June 2014.
The tour will cover California, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Florida and Georgia, with other states yet to be confirmed. Richards said he hopes to bring the programme to Jamaica.
Next year, he will travel to Africa (South Africa and Kenya) for the first time.
Richards is also a composer and choreographer. His composition Kaleidoscope was used for the culminating presentation at a Miami Dade Dance Teachers Association concert, held at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables.
Introduced to dance while with the Cathi Levy group, he studied a range of dance forms, including ballet, jazz, modern, tap and Afro-Cuban/Caribbean dance. His choreographed pieces have been featured in performances at the Broward Centre for the Performing Arts.
The last time he appeared on stage as a dancer was in 2006, Richards told me. He added that "most of my choreography has been in the modern/jazz fusion genre and, more recently, liturgical for use in church services."
I asked what his non-musical activities were. Richards' response was: "I devote a lot of time to studying philosophy, psychology, and literature. I enjoy studying foreign languages as well."