ROCHESTER, NY — It will be an anything-but-ordinary Thanksgiving for Eastman School of Music student John Richards.
Instead of enjoying turkey and the trimmings of the all-American holiday at home (in Salt Lake City), the 22-year-old violist will be half-a-world-away, east of Turkey — in Armenia, a small country that was part of the former USSR — preparing for his debut with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, the country’s leading symphony orchestra.
“It definitely will be a memorable Thanksgiving,” said Richards, the featured soloist in the Armenian premiere of a new viola concerto by Jeff Manookian called Improvisations on Armenian Folk Songs. The concert, conducted by the composer himself, will take place Friday, November 29, in the orchestra’s historical Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, located in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. While there, Richards also will record the work with the 75-year-old orchestra — made up of more than 100 musicians, all of whom are Armenian-born and were educated at conservatories in Yerevan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
“This is a grand venture for John and the viola,” said Richards’ current teacher John Graham, professor of viola at Eastman. “It is not a common occurrence for a student violist to appear as a concerto soloist in an international venue. As far as I know, this may be a first for a violist at Eastman.”
The opportunity to perform in the prestigious international setting arose from Richards’ connection to Manookian, a Salt Lake City musician who was his childhood piano/composition teacher and continues to be an important musical mentor. Because of his Armenian heritage, Manookian was drawn to the land of his ancestors and began composing music about its history. He wrote an oratorio based on the Armenian Genocide (influenced by Armenian folk and sacred music) and, as a follow-up, a concerto for viola. (The work was premiered by Richards and the Pasadena Symphony in the summer of 2000.) After learning about his music, the Armenian Philharmonic invited Manookian to Yerevan in 2001 and programmed a concert (and recording) of his music. He has since been invited back to conduct the orchestra in this concert — and subsequently invited Richards to be the featured soloist in the Armenian premiere of his 20-minute work.
Richards has been playing the viola since the age of 12. The first-year master’s student (who earned his bachelor’s degree in viola performance from Eastman in May) will depart Rochester for Armenia on Saturday, November 23, and return Tuesday, December 3.
“It seems to be such a passionate part of the world, and I look forward to a firsthand perspective,” Richards said.
Note to editors: John Richards is available for interviews.