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OCRS opens the new year 2024

with a Nixon Library concert

Our first concert of the new year wasn't at Half Off Books, which has become our go-to venue for regularly scheduled OCRS performances but, instead, at Theater 37 of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Vincent Johnson, Ryan Wishner and Max Libertor presented an outstanding afternoon that included 11 selections and playback courtesy a vintage gramophone. Seven of the selections were works by Scott Joplin, Zez Confrey and contemporary ragtime composers - more than two-thirds of the program, which also included one folk-style rag, one Popular-style ragtime waltz, one advanced rag and a Stride masterpiece.

Vincent led things off with Joplin's classic "Rose Leaf Rag," providing a smooth yet expressive rendition of the only Joplin rag to be published in Boston, Mass., and one whose four themes communicate four differing styles of ragtime: classic (A theme), dance (B), Missouri folk (C) and honky-tonk (D). Vincent then dipped a little further back to 1904 with a piece he said was "a huge hit during the ragtime era." Indeed, "St. Louis Tickle" was a monster hit when performed at the St. Louis World's Fair and for which composer Theron Bennett used the pseudonym "Barney and Seymore." This is an exciting, often rousing piano rag, perhaps Bennett's best, and Vincent's performance did the piece justice, and then some.

Ryan opened his set by demonstrating a vintage phonograph - in this case, a Victor from c. 1928-29 - using a 78 rpm disc recording of "Looking at the World Through Rose-Colored Glasses" (circa 1926) to give the audience a chance to hear what was, a century ago, cutting-edge technology. The recording of Waring's Pennsylvanians opens and closes with instrumentals sandwiched around a vocal passage, and it all sounds just as fresh now as in its time. Ryan then gave us the second Joplin rag of the day and the second from 1907 - the immortal "Gladiolus," a poetical, slow-tempo masterpiece whose first half leans on the durable, versatile structure of the opening sections of "Maple Leaf."

Making his Nixon Library debut, Max launched his first set with the first contemporary rag of the afternoon. Max Keenlyside's "Airplane to St. Louis" (from 2012) opens with a couple of jazzy, pleasingly loose themes. A wild, harmonically daring bridge leads to the final theme, which is just as relaxed as the first half but that carries more pizzazz and communicates more mettle. Like Vincent and Ryan, Max chose a late Joplin number for his first set. "Euphonic Sounds," though, goes much farther afield than nearly any Joplin piano solo. One can't really label it a "rag" so much as a series of intense syncopated themes clearly inspired by 19th-century Romantic music. Max interprets the piece at an extremely measured pace, using much rubato to highlight some of its most inspired passages.

Vincent's encore set began with a rarely heard ragtime waltz - "Tobasco" by Charles L. Johnson (who purposely spelled the title as a variant of the expected spelling of "tabasco"). The piece was issued in 1909, one of the more prolific years for the famed ragtime and pop composer, what with six rags published (and the same year as Joplin's ragtime waltz "Pleasant Moments"). At first listen, the piece sounds like a typical Popular-style rag from around 1910 (albeit with a three-quarter waltz beat). However, the listener quickly detects a more unique musical persona and a more inventive use of a handful of standard ragtime-era devices. In fact, the highly enjoyable piece demonstrates efforts on Johnson's part to avoid any cliches - those of ragtime as well as of ragtime waltzes.

Vincent wrapped up his second set with Zez Confrey's "Della Robbia," an expressive 1938 piano piece that Vincent told us was advertised as a "modern novelty" and a "modern piano solo." Miles apart from "Kitten on the Keys," the piece is indeed excitingly different not just from the works of others but from Confrey's own, well-established pieces, offering ideas that are daring and adventurous, especially for its time.

Ryan's first encore was Robert Hampton's masterful classic "Agitation," taken at a measured tempo and with pleasing embellishments in the repeats of the second and third themes. His second encore was "Pine Needles," the second contemporary of the day. Ryan has presented the piece previously at Theater 37, and it improves with each listening. The catchy opening section grabs your attention and leads to a fun second theme that's more rhythmically oriented. The trio is a bit more subdued but no less novel, and it leads to a socko finale that mixes a fresh use of standard ragtime devices with a more inventive way of putting those same ideas into a piano rag format.

Max closed the afternoon with a two-selection set that revisited Confrey, then took us home with Harlem Stride. From 1933, "Smart Alec" is yet another of Zez's innovative, up-tempo ragtime selections. The piece is rarin' to go right out of the gate, a blazing (however brief) whirlwind that got the audience to sit up and take notice.

The grand finale was Max's polished, breathtaking handling of Luckey Roberts's "Junk Man Rag." Max has patterned his phenomenal performance after Luckey's own recordings of the rag, which when published has been transposed into key signatures that are easier for the average pianist. Well, Lucky wasn't average and neither is Max, so this time we get to hear it in D-flat major and then, for the trio, B-major. "Junk Man" is one of the greatest Harlem Stride pieces ever, and when you hear Max play it with skill and precision, you're left agog - all the more so at the driving tempo we heard this afternoon.

The three stars took their well-deserved bows and those in the audience ascertained the dates of the upcoming OCRS concerts at Nixon Library and Half-Off Books. As the hall began to empty, an audience member requested "Solace - A Mexican Serenade" - so MC Eric Marchese took to the piano to provide an off-the-cuff rendition that, in the interest of clearing the auditorium on time, excluded the repeats of the second and third themes.

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