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Second August 2018 Nixon Library concert features four contrasting OCRS/RagFest pianists

For the second consecutive Sunday, OCRS pianists gathered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda to present a performance as part of the venue’s weekly Sunday Concert Series – but unlike the previous weekend, this one had been on the schedule since the start of the year.

Returning from the previous week were Johnny Hodges and Eric Marchese, now joined by Vincent Johnson and Paul Orsi, freshly returned from the Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival. Eric MCd and played one of his own rags, two popular rags from 1910 and a classic rag from 1909; Vincent did two originals and two classic rags; Paul did a variety: one great popular rag from 1908, one great pop song from 1919, a great ragtime revival rag from 1948, and a recent original co-written with Vincent; and Johnny did three of the most famous rags ever written and a barnburner version of a traditional hymn/gospel tune.

Eric started the show with “Dynamite Rag.” Although several rags bear this title, Eric chose the one from 1910, noting that composer J. Russel Robinson was only 18 years old at the time and that the rag’s publication by the Southern California Music Company in Los Angeles makes it one of the few rags to be published in Southern California during the ragtime era (Stark St. Louis issued the other three of Robinson’s first four published rags).

Next up was “Clambake Capers,” an original from 2003. The genesis of the piece, he said, was the desire to write something lighthearted, befitting a “capers” title, and something to recall the clambakes that are a regular summertime activity in his native New England.

Eric closed his set with “Euphonic Sounds,” the 1909 Joplin masterpiece that broke the mold in so many ways as the unsurpassed ragtime composer meshed the Romantic classical music of the 19th century with the rhythms and harmonies of ragtime, all while freeing ragtime from its stereotypical “oom-pah” (octave-chord) left hand and making the bass part of the fabric of the piece rather than simply an accompaniment to the melody line.

For his set of three, Vincent chose two originals that are featured on his new CD “Invincible Syncopations.” He opened with “Milk & Honey,” a gorgeous fusion of Judaic harmonies and rhythms with more standard ragtime elements, and closed his set with the reflective and more recent “Blueberry Pancakes.” Vincent’s lyrical, expressive playing provided a notable and ear-pleasing contrast to Eric’s more forceful keyboard style on one side and, on the other, Paul’s flash and dynamism and Johnny’s hard-charging style, both of which rock the house.

In between Vincent’s two originals was “Kismet Rag.” Stark issued it in 1913, choosing to display only Joplin’s name on the cover, omitting Scott Hayden’s – yet based on the music itself, the piece was most likely written primarily by Hayden, with Joplin possibly having made suggestions or smoothed over a few phrases. As the rag resembles the Joplin-Hayden collaborations from their days in Sedalia (“Sunflower Slow Drag” and “Something Doing”), it’s most likely contemporaneous with those, then most likely sat on Stark’s shelves for a few years before he published them (same circumstances as “Felicity Rag”).

Paul opened his set with a fantastic, elaborate version of the Gershwin song “Swanee,” spiced up by his showmanlike pianistics. Next up was the pleasantly swingy “’Sippi Shuffle,” a rag he co-wrote with Vincent. Paul closed with “Black and White Rag,” one of his signature pieces and not only an audience favorite, but one of the greatest rags ever written.

Johnny related that when appearing at Nixon Library the previous weekend, a fan requested that next time around he and the other pianists perform some of the ragtime pieces more familiar to audiences – so his set today consisted of two of Joplin’s most well-known rags and one of Euday Bowman’s known primarily for its name and the tune itself as opposed to its composer’s name: “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” and “Twelfth Street Rag.” Johnny did the two Joplins essentially as scored and his “Twelfth Street” in the patented Coke Corner style, and the audience positively flipped over all three.

Eric encored with the afternoon’s second George Botsford piece, “Grizzly Bear Rag,” explaining that it was a hit rag via the score, piano rolls and band performances; hit dance piece, as the west coast/Barbary Coast version of the turkey trot, so a popular animal fad dance; and hit song thanks to lyrics by Irving Berlin, set into motion by publisher Ted Snyder after hearing the rag and realizing he had a potential hit on his hands.

Vincent provided the afternoon’s third classic rag – “Patricia,” a lovely 1916 Lamb opus that’s generally underperformed by today’s ragtimers.

Paul’s encore was “Bumble Boogie,” another of his specialty tunes and a real crowd-pleaser. In fact, it pleased this crowd so much that it brought them to their feet.

Johnny is about the only performer who can follow Paul, so for his encore, Johnny delivered a rip-roaring, honky-tonk version of the traditional gospel song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” bringing the audience to its feet.

Audience members and performers mixed and mingled, with listeners primed to hear more at upcoming events like RagFest, the Oct. 20 Nixon concert, and a November OCRS.

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