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First Nixon Library concert of 2018 is socko

The June 2018 OCRS, held on June 16, was a special concert at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda – the first of three for this year. Entertainment-wise, the show was socko, enjoyed by a fairly modest turnout of roughly 40.

Back on board for the free 90-minute performance were past Nixon Library OCRS performers Eric Marchese, Paul Orsi and Ryan Wishner. As Vincent Johnson was otherwise engaged performing in the annual Old Town Music Hall Ragtime Festival, Bob Pinsker stepped into the fourth slot for the afternoon. Each performer delivered a set of three selections, the sets followed by one encore apiece.

Library docent Morris Amira welcomed the audience and made a few general comments about the venue before introducing Eric. Acting as MC, Eric greeted the audience before bringing on Ryan as the afternoon’s first performer.

Ryan started off with a fine piece of pre-ragtime: Thomas Hindley’s “Patrol Comique” from 1886, a sprightly, enjoyably bombastic early cakewalk. Next up was “Texas Fox Trot,” David Guion’s beautifully moody 1915 opus whose rhythms shift between standard 2/4 ragtime and more of a habañera bass. Ryan closed his set with a lilting interpretation of Scott Joplin’s top-notch 1907 rag “Search Light,” taking inspired liberties with the 16th-note bass octaves of the A theme and adding ear-catching embellishments to the melody lines of all four themes. The piece also tied in with Ryan’s encore in that both are inspired by former mining towns of the Old West.

Before his set, Eric offered an overview of the afternoon’s performers by running down the general preferences of each: Ryan covers much of the pre-ragtime of the 19th century along with a nice sampling of various ragtime genres and, more recently, his own unique compositions, many in the same vein as the earliest vintage rags. Paul covers much Classic and Popular ragtime along with numerous piano arrangements of ragtime songs and his own pieces. Bob has heavily mined the ragtime era’s Harlem Stride sub-genre and Tin Pan Alley pieces issued in the post-ragtime era (late teens through the early ’40s), unearthing previously undiscovered scores in the process.

Eric covers the Classic, Popular, Folk and Advanced subcategories, piano versions of the scores of Tin Pan Alley songs, and his own compositions. In line with this, he said he’d be playing one early piece, two that emerged toward the tail end of the ragtime era (the mid-teens), and one of his own rags. His set started with Clarence Wiley’s exuberant “Car-Barlick Acid” from 1901. From 1916 is Paul Pratt’s lilting “Spring-Time Rag” (1916), its intro and opening theme inspired by Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” He concluded with Euday Bowman’s “Colorado Blues” (1915), one of several outstanding blues tunes by the composer of the universally known “Twelfth Street Rag,” all of which are the apotheosis of the authentic Midwestern blues of the ragtime era.

Eric introduced Bob, who pointed out that it was Father's Day weekend and wished all the fathers in the audience an accordingly special weekend. Bob mentioned that this marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of his father-in-law, great local ragtime supporter Norm Richardson. Saying that Norm had really loved the music of the great Eubie Blake, Bob then opened with “Baltimore Todolo,” a quintessential Blake rag composed circa 1910 that best represents Eubie’s style and approach to multi-thematic piano compositions. Next up was Blake's song “(I’d Give a) Dollar For a Dime,” written in 1940 as “I'd Take A Nickel for a Dime” for the 1940 show "Tan Manhattan." Bob serenaded the audience not just with the music itself, but also with Andy Razaf’s lyrics. He closed his set with “Charleston Rag,” one of Eubie’s all-time greatest pieces and perhaps his masterpiece for solo piano.

Eric gave the audience a thumbnail sketch of Paul Orsi’s ragtime career, then brought him on stage. Paul opened with “Swanee,” one of the biggest song hits of George Gershwin’s career. He eschewed singing Irving Caesar’s lyrics and instead focused on delivering a dazzling piano rendition of the classic 1919 score. Next up was the cheerfully jazzy “’Sippi Shuffle,” a new piece recently co-written with Vincent Johnson. Paul closed with an entertaning display of one of the most popular rags ever written: George Botsford’s “Black and White Rag,” an inspired three-theme showcase of the composing approach known as three-over-four.

Each pianist then returned to the stage for encores, starting with Ryan, who offered “Desert Queen,” a luminescent original composed way back in ’16 – 2016, that is. Eric followed with an original too, saying that unlike those offered by his colleagues, “Zephyrs of Yesteryear” wasn’t recent: The lyrical, classic-style rag was one of a handful he composed in 2000, and he characterized it as “an exercise in nostalgia” in much the same way as the practice of preserving and performing vintage ragtime. Bob gave us one more Blake tune, Eubie’s immortal “Memories of You” in the composer’s concert-style arrangement that Blake performed very frequently in his later years. Paul closed things with a thunderingly lively version of the great 1905 rag “Cannon Ball” by Joseph C. Northup, one of the earliest rags to employ three-over-four device.

Having spotted Johnny Hodges in the audience, Eric invited him up to the stage and the piano. After telling the audience about himself, Johnny gave us a rip-roaring version of “Twelfth Street Rag,” putting a fantastic capper on a wonderful afternoon of piano and vocal ragtime.

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