Inspiring People James Richman

“We present music before 1800, and there is a bigger repertory. When you look at the composers of Baroque – Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Rameau, Handel – it’s more than anyone can do. But we give it a shot. It is fabulous.”

– James Richman

Finding Inspiring People isn’t always easy.  Sometimes, however, it comes quite simply after having been truly inspired. At a pre-Easter concert on a Sunday afternoon, my husband and I were privileged to hear J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion, presented by the Dallas Bach Society.  

There was a lecture pre-concert by the Society’s Artistic Director, James Richman, who took one into Bach’s 18th-century life and explained his motivation to “perfect liturgical music.”  (More about that later.) The history lesson was the ideal prelude to what followed: A glorious performance by the Dallas Bach Society of one of Bach’s most famous pieces, conducted by Mr. Richman.  

I had first become aware of the Dallas Bach Society’s pristine magnificence during an Easter Vigil Mass decades ago.  An interview with the current Artistic Director now became essential. 

“I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and began as a pianist at Juilliard Pre-College,” said James.  “I then attended Harvard University, graduating in the History of Science.”  Then, he says, back to music, where he gravitated to the harpsichord and bought one, eventually graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music, then back to Juilliard for a Master’s Degree in Harpsichord.  Whew!  (I had to dig, however, to find that he was the first musician since Leonard Bernstein to graduate from Harvard, Juilliard, and the Curtis Institute of Music!)

We talk about Baroque music, and his enthusiasm is irrepressible. “When studying harpsichord, I started with Bach and the greats in Baroque music,” he says.  “And how many great Baroque composers there were!  Bach, Handel, Rameau, in my view, formed a cosmic, equilateral triangle.  They were very different musicians, but all great.”  

We talk about Bach. “Bach picked the wrong time to perfect church music.  At that time, everything was dance and opera, not church music,” he said.  “Bach came in third (!) in the competition for General Music Director for the city of Hamburg – Telemann was first.  But Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel eventually won the same position years later.”  

There are those (I am one) who believe that Bach is the king above every other composer. James gives me a quote from Albert Fuller, the famed harpsichordist and proponent of early music.  “Bach is Mount Everest, but he wasn’t in a prairie.  He was in the middle of other tall mountains.”

Before leaving Bach, I ask what is his favorite composition?  “Oh good heavens!” he cries in anguish. Finally, “One of the Passions, the Goldberg Variations, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto.”

One has to coax James away from music onto the topic at hand – James Richman.  

“I was late to begin a career as a concert pianist, so I began conducting,” he says.  He put together a “Concert Royal” ensemble with musicians using original, early-music instruments and with the finest vocal soloists. They played the Bach Passions and the Messiah at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York for decades. Then, in 1994, the founder of the Dallas Bach Society, Paul Riedo, passed away, and James was invited to audition for the role.  He won hands down, thankfully, moving his wife and family to Dallas.

“The New York scene had already started to crumble, and it was less and less fun,” he says.  “I am happy to have made the move to Dallas, because look at it now!”

And Dallas is happy to have him. The non-profit Dallas Bach Society is thriving, thanks to his leadership. The Society not only presents season after season of magnificent Baroque music, but James with others from the Society is teaching early music, putting to use that infectious enthusiasm while working with high school students in Dallas. The society’s “Baroque Breakout” connects with the Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, the new Fine Arts Collegiate Arts Academy and Band Program, the TAG Magnet School, Conrad High School, and W. T. White High School.  Excellent student performances result.  

The Dallas Bach Society is his main job, but he also plays harpsichord concerts and is music director of the New York Baroque Dance Company. He has a good connection. His wife, Catherine Turocy, is its founder and directs the company. 

When asked, why does the Dallas Bach Society exist, he answers, “We present music before 1800, and there is a bigger repertory. When you look at the composers of Baroque – Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Rameau, Handel – it’s more than anyone can do. But we give it a shot. It is fabulous.”

So are you, Mr. Richman. 

Linda Faulkner Johnston – The Tradition

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