Feature story: Crossing musical boundaries

Arias and art songs, spirituals and standards blend smoothly when Peninsula duo performs

Ric Louchard and Yolanda Rhodes were born a few days apart. They were in junior high together at Jordan in Palo Alto, and both were involved in the arts. But after ninth grade they lost touch.

Now, a few decades later, the pianist and the soprano have gotten reacquainted, creating an abundant musical partnership and a repertoire that dances across boundaries. (Watch video of Louchard and Rhodes performing)

They can start a concert with a spiritual, then slip off into improvisation, threading their way up and down the keyboard. Next comes a classical aria, with Rhodes' three-octave voice soaring in Italian.

It's all because Rhodes picked up the phone book about 10 years ago. She was entering a competition to perform with the Palo Alto Philharmonic, and needed an accompanist. Something led her finger down the page to Louchard, a longtime piano teacher with a background ranging from classical harpsichord to the blues.

The two found that their muses clicked, and Rhodes won the competition. They've been playing together ever since. This Saturday, they'll hold a concert at the Palo Alto Art Center.

When the two former classmates first met again, they didn't realize they had such a longstanding connection. Rhodes didn't remember Louchard at all, and Louchard wasn't sure.

"He said: 'I think I know you. I think I had a crush on you in middle school.' But it was someone else," Rhodes says, breaking into laughter.

The pair is sitting in Louchard's Redwood City living room in the quiet glow of a Christmas tree, while a storm blusters outside. They speak with a shared warmth that makes them seem like siblings; they clearly delight in all the things they have in common.

"We're both sensitive beings, musically," Rhodes says. "We both have a love for humanity and like to, with our music, touch people."

The two also share an interest in social-justice issues. Part of the proceeds of the upcoming concert will go to CORA, a San Mateo County agency aiding victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse.

In addition, Rhodes and Louchard both believe in music that cuts across lines of style and culture. Rhodes describes their repertoire as "a mixture of our European and African heritages; a world mix," with some of the pieces written by Louchard. Saturday's program will include arias, art songs, spirituals and improvisation.

Coincidentally, Louchard's wife is also named Yolanda. "The Yolandas in my life," he says fondly, alluding to American composer Morton Feldman's "The Viola in My Life."

After their Jordan days, both Louchard and Rhodes followed paths that included studying classical music. Louchard also studied theory and composition, and has made several CDs: one of his own music on solo piano, and four recordings of classical and ragtime for children.

Rhodes, who grew up in East Palo Alto and still lives there, combined her classical studies with explorations into jazz voice and dance. Prominent in all her art is the feeling of telling a story. She has also been a professional storyteller for 20 years, appearing at schools, festivals and businesses.

Storytelling is an important part of her African-American ancestry, she says: It passes on information and culture to children, entertaining and teaching.

"That's how I learned about my parents, about gardens and herbs. My grandmother was a midwife and herbalist," Rhodes says. "I believe stories can heal, and music can heal."

Singing with Louchard is narrative for her as well. The two try to convey the emotional tale behind each piece of music, and they say their audiences are often moved to tears.

Like an actress who immerses herself in every role, Rhodes says she feels herself going different places with each song. When she sings "Strange Fruit," the song against racism and lynching that Billie Holiday made famous, she wants the audience to smell the magnolias and burning flesh. After performing an Italian aria from Catalani's "La Wally," she says she felt as though she were in the Alps, having to say goodbye to "this beautiful snowy place."

On this day, Rhodes and Louchard perform several songs together at Louchard's grand piano, beginning with the Gershwin standard "Summertime." They first do the song in a more traditional style, Rhodes' voice flowing with a rich certainty. Then Louchard takes off improvising on his own, his fingers skipping around the melody. Rhodes listens, sometimes bouncing on the balls of her feet, sometimes rippling her fingers as though she's playing along. From time to time she murmurs, "Yes."

Then it's back into another round of "Summertime" with a jazzy rhythm and a little ad-libbing. "You'll take to the sky -- then you'll fly," Rhodes sings. The dancer in Rhodes often comes out as she moves her arms in flight or slowly rocks an invisible baby. It's a whole new way of hearing the song.

In fact, Louchard and Rhodes try to do a song differently each time. They agree on general parameters -- in this case they'd decided to start traditional and then go more up-tempo -- but they don't plan in detail where the music will go. They want their music to be a spontaneous expression of how they're feeling, and they listen and respond to each other from moment to moment.

Overall, the goal is an informal style that invites the audience in. But there's nothing careless about it, said Rocky Nevin, a friend of Louchard's and a fellow pianist (who happens to be a Jordan graduate as well). Underneath the improvising and the emotion is strong technical skill, he said.

"Ric has always been a really inspired musician, with a really deep understanding of the music and composition," Nevin said. "And when I heard Yolanda's voice, I was just amazed. She has a precision, a tone which is just gorgeous."

As a classical pianist, Nevin expected to like the duo's classical pieces best.

"To my surprise, the spirituals and stuff that is not part of my domain are treated with the same respect," he said. "It's very satisfying." Their versions of "Strange Fruit," he added, are "magical."

For Louchard and Rhodes, it just feels natural to combine the classical with the contemporary, and even to improvise within classical pieces.

Louchard says one of his past teachers, harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, encouraged him to improvise on the harpsichord. When working on a Bach prelude, for example, Louchard had to vary something different every time, such as the dynamics. He ended up loving "the idea that you can take any kind of music that seems hammered down and make something alive."

So now each performance by Rhodes and Louchard is a meandering sojourn, and even the musicians aren't always sure where they'll end up. They just know it'll be a place where any kind of melody can appear.

"Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music: good and bad," Louchard says. "We play the good."

What: Pianist Ric Louchard and soprano Yolanda Rhodes perform an eclectic blend of music as part of the city's Palo Alto Performance Series.

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.

Cost: $14 general, $12 for students and seniors.

Info: E-mail Louchard at or go to Rhodes' Web site at .


Like this comment
Posted by steve butler
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Dec 11, 2008 at 12:29 am

Dear Yolanda and Ric, I just listened to your beautiful music on Youtube. You guys rock... I am looking forward to hearing more of your great duets. Mixing storytelling with song in a social context makes sense. Sorry I missed your act. Steve in Oakland

Like this comment
Posted by Rebekah Brown
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2009 at 9:34 am

Dear Yolanda and Ric - have also been watching and listening to you on YouTube - we are fellow musicians (jazz and classical in Norfolk England) - think you are absolutely stunning - such power and brilliance in your perfomances. Words just cannot express all I want to say - I can see why audiences are so moved when they experience your recitals - you deeply move me too.

Wish that you would come to England here and we could see you in "live" performance!

kindest regards - Rebekah and Keith Brown

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