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Provost Mark Richards: A Scientist with the Soul of a Musician

Provost Mark Richards first encountered the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1983 while working on his Ph.D. at CalTech. Dr. Richards will renew his acquaintance with the group when he moderates a pre-show discussion about Lagrime di San Pietro with director Peter Sellars and Chorale director Grant Gershon on March 26.

Provost Mark Richards is a scientist with the soul of a musician. Or maybe it’s the other way around. He was born into a family of musicians—his father was a music professor at a small college in Texas; his mother taught piano and played the church organ; his older brother became an orchestra conductor and musicologist, and his younger one is an artist and designer — and he grew up playing the piano, violin, clarinet, saxophone and guitar as well as singing.  

Unlike the rest of his family, however, Dr. Richards chose a different professional path, receiving his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, followed by a masters in applied physics and a Ph.D. in geophysics from The California Institute of Technology.

Known for its strength in science and engineering, CalTech also has a long history of encouraging its students to participate in the arts, and it was while he was there that Dr. Richards first encountered the L.A. Master Chorale. Prompted by a friend, he auditioned for the Chorale in 1983 when it was under the direction of Roger Wagner, one of the most renowned choral conductors in the field at the time. For two years he sang with the group.

“It was an amazing experience,” he recalls. “I’d drive from the CalTech campus to rehearsals in West Hollywood and it was like entering a different universe.” During his time with the Chorale, Dr. Richards had the opportunity to perform many of the major choral works—including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Placido Domingo at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 1984 Olympics opening ceremonies.

So naturally, Dr. Richards was interested when he heard that Meany Center would be bringing the L.A. Master Chorale to the UW Campus on March 26 to perform a renaissance masterpiece, Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime.

Then he learned that the director of this production, Peter Sellars, would also be coming.

It turns out that while he was the Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley, Dr. Richards had the opportunity to meet the celebrated theater director before the world premiere of John Adams’ monumental opera, Dr. Atomic, for which Sellars was the librettist.

The work focuses on Manhattan Project head Robert Oppenheimer in the weeks leading up to the first test of the first atomic bomb. Dr. Atomic had particular resonance for Richards since Los Alamos was (and still is) run by the UC System, and Oppenheimer was a professor at Berkeley. He got to know Sellars while hosting him at a series of events held at Berkeley, and even attended Dr. Atomic’s premiere at the San Francisco Opera with him. He remembers Sellars as a man “with an effervescent personality and an obsession for unusual detail.”

Fifteen years later, Provost Richards will renew his acquaintance with both the L.A. Master Chorale and Peter Sellars when he moderates a pre-show discussion about Lagrime with Sellars and Chorale director Grant Gershon on March 26.