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Lady performers beat guys to the punch at August OCRS

What started out looking like it would be an extremely lightly attended afternoon, our August musicale wound up featuring nine musicians in all and, as far as the audience was concerned, standing room only at "The Cave" of Mo's Fullerton Music store.

Our nonet delivered 41 selections in all, but the dominant feature was the presence of four lady pianists alongside the four guy pianists and one guy guitarist: Nan Bostick, Shirley Case, Stephanie Trick and Marilyn Martin, a quartet who matched and in most cases outplayed Bill Mitchell, Ron Ross, Frank Sano, MC Eric Marchese and guitarist Phil Cannon. In Orange County for a house concert later that evening, Stephanie, in particular, was hands-down the afternoon's champion performer, making the most taxing Harlem Stride tunes look like it was all in a day's work.

At 1 p.m. just a small handful of listeners were on hand, so Eric noodled around on two 1909 Joplins, "Paragon Rag" and "Wall Street Rag," adding the composer's "Eugenia" (1906) for good measure. He then brought Ron Ross onto the stage for two originals - "Sunday Serendipity" and "Digital Rag" - and invited Phil to join him on "Elite Syncopations." "Serendipity's" main theme (B) offers some minor-key dramatics, while "Digital" has a catchy opening strain and a trio that's really more of a bridge than a full-fledged theme. "Elite" was taken at an exceptionally slow tempo - perhaps too slow, in fact - but wholly understandable given the difficult nature of matching every note of the piano score on a guitar. Phil Cannon's work is admirable; he added pleasing embellishments, with Ron throwing in some of his own rhythms.

Stephanie Trick, visiting from her home in St. Louis and in Orange County to perform a concert at the home of Bruce Mayall, swung by Mo's with her mom and Bruce in tow. A recent graduate of the University of Chicago, she said she began playing piano at age five, beginning with classical and jazz before getting hooked on ragtime - specifically, Harlem Stride.

She started her first set with George Gershwin's "Liza." Next up was Fats Waller's "Valentine Stomp." She ended this dynamic set with Clarence Williams' 1926 number "I Found a New Baby." "Liza" demonstrated Stephanie's terrific dexterity, control and mastery of dynamics. The driving, exciting piece keeps both hands busy, including working both hands in octaves concurrently. Waller's "Stomp" from 1929 has a Stride bass and an authentic Harlem sound, while "New Baby" features a "drop bass" usually heard only in Harlem Stride. All three pieces showcased tons of licks and tricks, all of which Stephanie has long since mastered.

Shirley Case opened with Irene Giblin's 1906 rag "Sleepy Lou," a folk-style rag with haunting harmonies and many lovely sounds and ideas. To mix things up, Shirley put both hands in parallel for parts of the final chorus of the B theme. A highlight of her set was her performance of Lamb's "Cottontail Rag," one of the great legato-style pieces so favored by the composer, who wrote it in the mid-teens but let it sit unpublished until 1959. The piece, which proves Lamb's sense of the dramatic, opens with a section that mirrors "Top Liner Rag" (this piece's original title!), with Shirley gussying up the final chorus of the closing theme with loads of fine embellishments. She then shifted into contemporary mode with Trebor Tichenor's "Cape Rose Rag," with its jazzy, confident opening theme, second theme with a circle of fifths alternating between hands and two trio themes that are striding and spirited yet full of grace and majesty. The piece can be heard on the composer's album "Tempus Ragorum" - that's Latin, folks, for "ragtime" (!!).

Marilyn Martin opened her set with Galen Wilkes' "Creeks of Missouri," a contemporary classic, then revisited Harry Puck's "Foot Warmer" which she debuted at the most recent OCRS. Her third tune would have been Cy Seymour's "Panama Rag," but Marilyn stopped about halfway through, scrapped the piece and instead delivered Harry Landrum's "Mississippi Smilax," a terrific ragtime piece from 1907.

Frank Sano and Bill Mitchell gave us a four-handed medley of several Jazz Age tunes: "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "The Blue Room" and "You Were Meant for Me" - then duetted on the two pianos on Wenrich and Madden's "Red Rose Rag," with "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" as the capper of their set.

Noting that the gladiolus is the flower for those born in August, Eric performed Joplin's immortal "Gladiolus Rag" from 1907. Its opening two themes are slowed-down versions of their counterparts in "Maple Leaf Rag," but with a powerful spirit of grandeur and poetry. The trio, with its constantly shifting harmonies, is a highlight, while the final theme combines a riff rhythm with subtle inner voices in the treble and powerful countermelodies in the bass. The rag is and always has been one of Joplin's finest masterpieces.

Before heading to Mission Viejo to prepare for her house concert, Stephanie resumed her place at the piano with her final set of the day. She opened with Willie the Lion Smith's "Echoes of Spring," a lovely, pastoral piece by "the Lion" yet also a virtuoso work, to which the pianist added wonderful embellishments and a pleasing variety of devices in both hands. Next up: "Anitra's Dance," Stride pianist Donald Lambert's Stride version of the number from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. The piece's opening theme sounds like Scott Joplin writing in the Harlem Stride school of composition. Like all of Stephanie's selections, it's a virtuoso piece that's (obviously!) technically demanding. Her final piece was Neville Dickie's playful and joyous rag "Poodlin' with Pat," a reference to his and his wife's love of poodles (at one time, they had eight!).

Nan Bostick delivered three Bay Area-rags: George Gould's "Whoa! Nellie" (1915), Herbert Marble's "Lucky Dog" (1917) and Sydney Russell's "Too Much Raspberry" (1916). With a delightful stoptime trio, "Nellie," which was published by Nan's "Uncle Charlie" (Charles N. Daniels), was played at a rapid tempo and high volume, yet its challenges were more than conquered by Nan. Herbert Bryan Marble, the composer of "Lucky Dog," was Sherman and Clay's personal manager in the 1910s, so it's no surprise this company was the rag's publisher; the rag's features are swing rhythm in the first two themes and considerable use of minor tonalities in the B and C themes. As Nan conjectures, Russell probably wrote "...Raspberry" while still a college student; as with most teen rags, she notes, this one is full of sudden, adventurous and often surprising harmonic shifts.

Phil amazed everyone with his intricate fingering on two technically challenging ragtime pieces: Scott's "Rag Sentimental" and Joplin's 1909 rag-tango "Solace." Phil then asked Bill to join him on "Pine Apple Rag." From 1918, "Rag Sentimental" is rarely played on piano as it is, thus all the more impressive hearing it on guitar. Phil treats it like he's on the piano, with the treble in his right hand and bass in his left, even providing the piece's numerous countermelodies in the treble. Likewise, the cross-rhythms of "Solace" can be quite tricky, but no problem for Phil. For "Pine Apple," Bill provided light chording in both hands while Phil handled the entire piece exactly as scored.

Bill and Eric then delivered four-handed versions of "The Smiler" and "Original Rags," with Frank on hand as the rhythm section. Next, Frank used washboard and cymbals to augment Bill's playing of Morton's "Chicago Breakdown" and Lamb's "Bohemia." One of his greatest classic/jazzy rags, the Morton piece, originally released as "Stratford Hunch," gained much from Bill's swingy rhythms and Frank's light thimble work on washboard and cymbals. Bill also lent pleasing improvisations to "Bohemia," the last of the dozen Joseph Lamb rags published by John Stark between 1908 and 1919.

Ron encored with two more originals: "Acrosonic Rag" and "Cloudy - A Ragtime Waltz." "Acrosonic" (named for a Baldwin label piano) offers countermelodies in the bass, often in 32nd notes and, like most Ross pieces, use of minor tonalities, while "Cloudy" is moody and emotionally complex.

Eric prefaced his encore, the original solo "The Last Princess," by noting that it was exactly 12 years ago this month that Princess Diana was killed in a car wreck in a Paris tunnel. Watching the funeral proceedings on TV a week later, Eric was moved to write a four-themed ragtime essay on the subject, with each of the four sections reflecting the emotions of the British people: reverence and affection (the first theme), shock at the news of her death (second section), grieving the loss (third section) and trying to forge ahead without her presence in their lives (final theme).

For their encores, Shirley and Nan stuck with all-women composers. Shirley's wonderful selections were Imogene Giles' 1907 rag "Red Peppers" and Irene Cozad's "Eatin' Time." Giles' only published rag, the outstanding "Red Peppers" seems a cross between Classic (Joplin) and Popular styles, while the later "Eatin' Time" (1913) has an exciting, busy second subject and a strutting, high-spirited, Classic Rag-style trio with a bass that often suggests waltz tempo. Nan encored with Kalmar & Ruby's "Who's Sorry Now?" and the goofily charming "Bean Whistle Rag," one of her earliest original piano rags. Shirley and Nan then took us home to close the meeting with more great ragtime by the great women composers Julia Lee Niebergall ("Hoosier Rag") and Charlotte Blake ("The Gravel Rag").

Our next OCRS will be our final musicale for 2009. It's at Steamers on Saturday, September 19th. We'll see everyone there as performers and audience alike begin to gear up for RagFest 2009!

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