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October 2022 Nixon Library show a winner

On October 16, 2022, The Nixon Presidential Library hosted its second OCRS-produced concert in six weeks. Part of the series of concerts held each Sunday at Theater 37, the performance was fairly well-attended, the audience getting four of OCRS's top pianists. The show was boosted by a special guest performer who joined one of the regulars, providing a change-of-pace for what would normally have been an all-piano afternoon.

The veteran ragtimers were Michael Flores, Vincent Johnson, Paul Orsi and Johnny Hodges. The guest performer was Michael's dad, Dave Flores . . . but more on that later.

Having performed last time around, Eric Marchese was on hand this time to MC, introducing each performer and giving the audience background information about each.

Making his Nixon Library debut, Michael broke the ice with a fantastic set that easily demonstrated the incredible musical diversity of ragtime, featuring a classic rag, a Novelty rag, and a Morton opus.

He started things off with Zez Confrey's immortal "Kitten on the Keys." Next was an up-tempo version of Hayden and Joplin's great 1901 work "Sunflower Slow Drag" which Michael ended by going from the second repeat of the D theme back into a fourth and final statement of the memorable opening theme and a brief coda.

Jelly Roll Morton's outstanding piano piece "The Crave" is one of Michael's best numbers, and he wisely saved it for last. The piece is a showcase for devices like the break, the tango rhythm Jelly referred to as "the Spanish tinge," and many other signature Morton touches. As with his entire set, Michael's playing was masterful.

Paul Orsi, paying a visit back to So. Cal. after having recently moved to Surprise, Arizona, opened his set with one of his stock numbers from his days playing piano at Disneyland's Coke Corner: "Some Day My Prince Will Come" from the gargantuan 1937 animated feature his "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Paul gives the number a terrific workout, starting out slow and lyrical, then pushing the tempo, then adding a jazzy, swingy feel before throttling the tempo back for the big finale.

Paul then introduced the afternoon's surprise guest: Michael's dad, Dave Flores, who has been joining Paul when he plays ragtime piano at various retirement communities throughout Orange County. The stand-up electric bass is just one of Dave's instruments, and his accompaniment to Paul's piano created an added dimension to their two selections, "Swipesy" and "Twelfth Street Rag." Though the word "cakewalk" is part of its title, "Swipesy" is in fact not a cakewalk at all, but a polished classic rag in both form and content. Dave's bass playing enhanced the piece's rhythm. The sound of Bowman's immortal "Twelfth Street" likewise gained a thumping, booming sound already present in the piano score's bass.

Vincent opened his set with a piece that turned out to be a treat not just for its being a rarity but also for its musical content. Federico "Fred" Elizalde composed "Siam Blues" when he was all of 17 years old, in 1924, making a 78 rpm recording that year which is the basis for Vincent's performance of it. This outstanding blues composition was never published, but was among the earliest (and most likely the first) of a respectable total of some 25 to 30 pieces composed by Elizalde, who passed away in 1979 at age 72.

Vincent's second number was also from 1924. The outstanding Novelty "Mah Jong" by Sid Reinherz is rarely played by today's ragtimers, and Vincent's performance of it is a tour de force highlighting the piece's originality, a feature underscored by the wildly atonal trio section.

Vincent closed his superb set with "Top Liner Rag," widely considered to be Lamb's masterpiece and among the greatest rags ever written.

The afternoon's second Disneyland veteran, Johnny Hodges, gave us a hugely diverse set that spanned nearly a century. First off was his piano arrangement of "When You Were Sweet Sixteen," James Thornton's pop song from 1898, which Johnny used as a springboard for one of the ragtime era's most popular songs: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" (from 1910). Next up was Johnny's bluesy, honky-tonk rendition of the 1830s hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Johnny closed his set and the formal part of the program with "Stumblin'," providing a wonderful symmetry for an afternoon that opened and closed with Zez Confrey selections.

We say "formal" because when the five performers took to the stage for a curtain call, the applause was continuous, and peppered with "Encore! Encore!" requests.

As Michael had successfully completed his first performance at this historic venue, it was unanimously decided that he should play the encore. That he did, with his solid performance of Joplin's immortal "Maple Leaf Rag," widely known as "the granddaddy of all rags."

We've got no more Nixon Library shows for this year, but expect to be back in 2023, so stay tuned for more information regarding scheduled performances and such details as who will be on the bill.


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