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‘A Joplin Afternoon’ makes Placentia’s Bradford House ring with the sounds of ‘The King of Ragtime Composers’

For our May 2016 OCRS performance, we replaced the standard, open-piano OCRS format with a special concert dedicated to the works of Scott Joplin, the third such OCRS concert.

Titled “A Joplin Afternoon,” the event featured only solo works by the composer (none of his collaborations), including rags, ragtime songs, marches, waltzes (syncopated or not) and excerpts from Joplin’s 1911 opera “Treemonisha.” The location was the historic Bradford House in the city of Placentia, built in 1902 by Albert Sumner Bradford (Placentia’s founder) as his home.

Featured pianists were Andrew Barrett, Shirley Case, Eric Marchese, Bob Pinsker and Ryan Wishner, with Eric acting as host and MC. As the crowd filed in and took their seats and the pianists arrived, Eric gave some general background information about Joplin and took a few questions from the audience.

Things got rolling at 2 p.m. with Ryan’s performances of three of Joplin’s earliest published pieces: “Please Say You Will,” “The Great Crush Collision March” and “Harmony Club Waltzes.” The first of these was Joplin’s first published piece, a waltz-tempo Victorian ballad. Joplin wrote both music and lyrics, then sold it to a publisher in Syracuse, NY, in 1895 when his Texas Medley Quartette visited there while touring the U.S. “Crush” is program music Joplin wrote in 1896 to commemorate a spectacular collision of two locomotive trains staged by George Crush as a publicity stunt in Temple, Texas, in 1896, and “Harmony Club,” from the same year, is a series of graceful, Strauss-style waltzes named (like “Maple Leaf Rag”) for a private club.

Shirley then got the ragtime ball rolling with three of Joplin’s best early rags: “The Easy Winners” (1901), “Elite Syncopations” (1902) and “The Entertainer” (1902), two of which were popularized through the 1973 movie “The Sting,” landing “The Entertainer” on the pop charts and triggering a landslide of renewed interest in Scott Joplin and his music.

Bob offered an unusual version of Joplin’s “Palm Leaf Rag”: his own re-arrangement, for solo piano, of the graceful 1903 rag. When Bob’s orchestra, the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, based in his hometown of San Diego, starting playing the publisher’s original stock orchestration of the piece, the first time through the trio was made into a piano solo, so Bob thickened the arrangement of that strain for the solo. He subsequently was inspired to rearrange the whole piece in that heavier solo style, which led to the version of the piece he played on this occasion.

Eric noted that “Maple Leaf Rag” was not only Joplin’s sole huge hit during his own lifetime but that its structure was nearly so perfect that Joplin reworked it many times throughout his career – then demonstrated by playing “The Cascades” and “Leola.” From 1904, “Cascades” was, like “Crush,” program music – in this case, a musical evocation of the Cascade Gardens, the spectacular watercourse that came to symbolize the St. Louis World’s Fair. Indeed, each successive theme of this great rag reflects a section of the waterworks, from the delicate fountains of its origins (A theme) to its tumultuous waterfalls (B and C themes) to its placid lagoon (D). The first of the afternoon’s many 1905 offerings, “Leola” is also one of the rarest Joplin piano rags, a lyrical, poetic reworking of “Maple Leaf” and a worthy predecessor (by two years) of “Gladiolus Rag.”

Andrew continued the 1905 parade with “Sarah Dear” and “Binks’ Waltz.” The former featured Joplin’s reworking of the floating folk strain variously known as “funky butt” and “Buddy Bolden’s blues”; the latter was a work commissioned by a prominent St. Louis family whose patriarch hired Joplin to write and publish a piece named for his baby grandson, whose nickname was Bing. Joplin did so, but the publisher misspelled “Bing” so that “Bing’s Waltz” became “Binks’ Waltz.” Both pieces are pure Joplin and superb throughout.

Shirley delivered one of Joplin’s most revered works, the intricate, haunting syncopated waltz “Bethena” (1905). It’s been said that this was the first piece Joplin wrote after the death of his beloved wife Freddie (of pneumonia in fall, 1904), and the piece rings with sorrow but also with tenderness and a sense of validation.

Bob wrapped up the first half with the gorgeous yet often overlooked 1905 rag “Eugenia,” most likely named for Eugenia Street in St. Louis, and the even more rare “Antoinette,” a stirring march from 1906. Both pieces featuring the rapid, sixteenth-note bass octaves found in “The Cascades” and “Leola” and some later pieces which placed more demands upon the pianist but which helped create a recognizable sound within Joplin’s music.

Following the intermission, Shirley gave a wonderful performance of “Rose Leaf Rag” (1907). Ryan followed with “Search Light,” another great 1907 rag by Joplin, then performed “Stoptime Rag.” From 1910, “Stoptime” is not only one of Joplin’s most unusual (and atypical) pieces; it’s also incredibly rare to hear any ragtimer playing this piece, whether at a formal performance (such as this one), ragtime festival or house concert.

Eric noted that 1909 was a banner year for Joplin and repeated the assertion that had Joplin written only the six pieces he had published that year, and nothing else, he would have secured a lofty place for himself in American music. First off was “Solace – A Mexican Serenade.” Featured in “The Sting,” it’s Joplin’s only “rag-tango,” with a habañera bass rhythm in themes A, B and D and a syncopated bass in section C that implies the same rhythm. Second was the even more unusual “Euphonic Sounds.” Heavily influenced by 19th-century romantic classical music, the piece reflects Joplin’s success in writing music that fits the definition of ragtime but which replaced the standard octave-chord left hand part with a wide variety of bass voicings (single sixteenth note runs or passages; octaves; block chords; and passages above middle C that combine with the treble to create a seamless unit).

Andrew gave us the superb “Paragon Rag” from 1909, followed by Bob’s performance of “Wall Street Rag.” The first of the six 1909 pieces, the A theme of “Wall Street” flirts with the use of the habañera rhythm in the bass that Joplin exploited more fully in his next piece (“Solace”).

Bob offered a true rarity when he told the story of how a well-known photo of Joplin’s piano at his home in New York (circa 1915) was magnified so that the single page of handwritten manuscript on the music rack could be read and performed. Bob then played this fragment of rare ragtime, clearly (based on its stylistic elements) one of the several new pieces Joplin was known to have composed late in his life which went unpublished (and were subsequently lost). Hearing it offered a glimpse into Joplin’s creative mind toward the end of his life and made one wish for more.

Along the same lines are the 27 musical numbers from “Treemonisha.” Joplin self-published the score out of his own pocket in 1911, and Bob played three of the opera’s most beautiful and memorable selections: the arresting “We’re Goin’ Around,” the brief, barbershop quartet-tinged “We Will Rest A While,” and the thoroughly rousing “Aunt Dinah Has Blowed De Horn.” Eric then followed up with “A Real Slow Drag,” the beautiful, haunting closing number to “Treemonisha.”

Andrew closed the afternoon with two of the last pieces of Joplin’s ragtime to be published (and two of only a small handful to be issued after 1911): “Magnetic Rag,” from 1914, is one of Joplin’s most moving rags, its four sections representing four varying styles of music (folk, classic ragtime, blues, classical, etc.). “Reflection Rag” was published in December of 1917, eight months after Joplin’s death, by John Stark, Joplin’s earliest white champion and the publisher of “Maple Leaf.” It’s been postulated that Stark had purchased the rag from Joplin as much as 10 years earlier and had kept it in his files, issuing it posthumously. While not among Joplin’s greatest rags, it is, like all Joplin works, a pleasure to hear; it’s been said of “Reflection” that there is nothing else like a truly poignant Scott Joplin rag – something the audiences at Bradford House learned time and again during this concert.

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