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Classic ragtime and originals spark the June 4 OCRS concert at Nixon Presidential Library

The ragtime concert OCRS hosted at the Nixon Presidential Library on June 4 featured three OCRS All-Stars, one of whom was making his debut at the venue, and a guest musician who brought variety to the piano-centric program.

Half of the selections were Classic rags and two more were original compositions, creating a pleasing variety for the audience. The pianists were Barry Blakeley, Michael Flores and Ryan Wishner, with bass player David Flores as special guest.

In his first time performing on the Theater 37 stage, Barry served up a polished, up-tempo performance of Joplin's perfectly-structured "Gladiolus Rag." His second selection was the equally superb early Joplin masterpiece, "The Easy Winners." With modest embellishments and a pleasing sound, both rags are, in Barry's hands, effervescent.

Michael and his dad, Dave, produced a loose, jazzy feel that provided a creative, improvisational feel to their selections, the first three of which were ragtime compositions.

The duo started their first set with Zez Confrey's immortal "Kitten on the Keys" from 1921, just past the unofficial end of the ragtime era. Bookending their set, from early in the ragtime era, was the venerated Hayden-Joplin collaboration "Sunflower Slow Drag." The guys opt to goose the tempo of this slow drag, creating something fairly up-tempo. The approach yields a surprisingly enjoyable sound enhanced by the improvisations of Michael's piano arrangement. In both selections, the blending of piano and bass is smooth and pleasing to the ear, obviously having been carefully worked out by Michael and Dave.

Ryan delivered two outstanding rags published in 1909: "Silver King" by Charles L. Johnson and "Ethiopia" by Joseph F. Lamb. Published in Chicago, Johnson's rag is rarely performed. Its inventive opening themes lead to a fantastic third theme, one of Johnson's best.

Lamb's "Ethiopia" was published by Stark a year after issuing "Sensation," and while a masterpiece, it tends to be overlooked in favor of "Ragtime Nightingale," "American Beauty," "Top Liner" and others issued by Stark between 1908 and 1919. It's a gem of Classic ragtime, a stirring rag that's among Lamb's greatest, and Ryan's performance uses lovely rubato to enhance this selection.

Barry returned to the stage and offered yet one more Joplin, then an original. "The Cascades" is a Joplin masterpiece that heralded a fruitful five-year period during which Joplin wrote the bulk of his greatest compositions. Sections of all three of Barry's Joplin selections were skillfully used in the movie "The Sting," and Barry delivered an outstanding performance of this 1904 masterwork.

"Traffic Jam" indeed sounds like a musical description of a busy road crowded with cars. The third theme's opening melody line resembles the opening theme of "Peacherine Rag" but quickly develops original concepts, and the minor tonalities used for the D theme conjure images of drivers frantic to reach their destinations.

This almost brand-new rag has a fascinating history: Barry began writing it in the ‘70s but didn't complete it until recently. After attending his first OCRS performance, he was inspired by the original works of some of its pianist-composers, returned to the drawing board, and completed the rag, which is a joy to hear.

For their encore set, Michael and Dave delivered an enjoyably loose, jazzy rendition of the Marshall-Joplin standard "Swipesy," enhanced by Dave's bass work. They closed their set with a relaxed, ultra-jazzy version of the 1935 song "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" by Fred Ahlert (music) and Joe Young (lyrics). Dave not only provided the bass to Michael's piano; about halfway through, he sang some of Young's lyrics, and came back in with more vocals to close the piece.

Ryan took the stage for his encore set and the afternoon's closing selections: one vintage rag and one original. "The Thriller" is May Aufderheide's best rag, and Ryan's performance takes an already outstanding piano piece and improves it with more intricate bass work (in the A theme) and the use of tremolo in the treble (in section B). This was a wonderful selection, and a great way to salute the composer's birthdate, which was just two weeks earlier (May 21)

Ryan's most recent piece, "Pine Needles" is an extraordinary piano rag he had started working on a handful of years ago and had just completed within the last few months. It's got an innovative opening theme and a second section that combines clever harmonies, the three-over-four device and rhythms similar to the use of stoptime. Theme C brings more originality and leads into the finale, which delivers a rousing wind-up to this fantastic contemporary rag.


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