Ideal Arrangement

Brad Richter and Nancy Davis Booth have joined to perform unique versions of classic American music

Brad Richter and Nancy Davis Booth are trying something new with rather old music.

Richter, a Tucson-based guitarist and composer, and Booth, a versatile soprano and darling of local audiences (even though she left Tucson four years ago to teach at Indiana's Butler University), are teaming up for a concert that blends classical music with Richter's original work and his intricate arrangements of American folk and popular songs.

Richter won't just be sitting there strumming three chords while Booth hogs the spotlight in pieces by the likes of George Gershwin and Stephen Foster.

"We're preserving the melody and form, but the guitar accompaniment is completely different," says Richter.

As an example, he plays his opening bars for "They Can't Take That Away from Me." The arrangement includes a colorful little element that imitates a trap set and provides an interesting backbeat.

"The guitar parts don't take many cues from the piano parts that Gershwin wrote," he says. "They just borrow the chord structure."

The same goes for the folk songs they'll perform. "You Are My Sunshine," for instance, is transposed to F-sharp minor and takes on an unusually melancholy character. And always, the guitar maintains equal partnership with the voice.

"It's really a true duo," says Booth, "so you see two artists together creating something synergistic."

Booth is accustomed to singing classical music, show tunes and torch songs with symphony orchestras, instrumental combos or at least a sonorous piano. She says she loves the flexibility she now finds in duets with the guitar, even though for Richter, it's a tougher challenge to collaborate with a singer.

"The guitar is much more transparent than the piano and so you can sing with even more nuance," Booth says. "I don't have to sing as loud; I can be more a part of his sound, which works well for the type of music we're doing."

Richter hears things a bit differently from his vantage point.

"The voice can easily overpower the guitar," he says. "So we choose material that lies a little lower in Nancy's range. Nancy can very well sing quiet and soft and high at the same time, but it's difficult. Most pieces that lie very high in the vocal range have to be sort of loud. Even when they're not loud in decibels, the range of tones smothers the guitar. So we work on that quite a bit."

Richter's solution, in part, is to create rich textures and complex polyrhythms, giving the arrangement a more orchestral effect.

"The textures and sounds I'm using are probably easier to play than they sound," Richter admits, "but they fill up the arrangement quite a bit."

This stands in contrast to another work they play, the Seven Spanish Popular Songs of Manuel de Falla, the piano part transcribed for guitar by Emilio Pujol.

"The transcription is great," says Richter, "but it's difficult to play compared to the small amount of sound it gets out of the guitar."

Besides the Falla, the concert also includes such classical pieces as Maurice Ravel's Five Popular Greek Melodies, arranged by Richter, and Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, with the guitar substituting for the original accompaniment of eight cellos. And there will be some of Richter's own solo pieces, as well as a set of songs he wrote on texts by Robert Frost. Richter performed one of his works with Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel here last fall (see "Easy Harmony," Oct. 2, 2003); his music, while accessible, exploits a wider variety of colors and effects than you hear in many older works for classical guitar.

Still, there are some things that Richter just can't manage. Booth wanted Richter to come up with an arrangement of Richard Strauss' lushly orchestrated Four Last Songs, but "it was just impossible to do anything on the guitar that would have the power that music needed," Richter says.

That may have fallen through, but each artist is persuading the other to perform pieces they otherwise might not have tried.

"When Brad asked me to do Stephen Foster's 'Hard Times Come Again No More,' I didn't think I had the type of voice to do it justice," says Booth. "But then we started working on it, and it began to seep into me as I remembered the roots of my family in Oklahoma, and that my mother's family had a bluegrass band. All of a sudden, I was able to find where the sound was able to be."

Richter had given up performing duos with a soprano from England when the scheduling became too difficult, but he immediately found new avenues opening to him in collaboration with Booth.

"Nancy came along at just the right time and took this in a completely different direction, with us starting to do more arrangements of American music," says Richter. "I'm enjoying that so much, but I don't think I would have gone there if it weren't for Nancy. I love this music, and now it's my favorite music to play."

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