Sedalia champions Scott Joplin, the king of ragtime, and his local publisher, John Stark, who put the music form on the national map. The music of Joplin's era, from 1897 to 1917, received stellar performances from some of the best practitioners of the form.
The Thursday night concert, for example, featured Tulsa-based pianist Donald Ryan, who gave a stately reading of Joseph Lamb's "Ethiopian Rag" and a lively, articulate playing of Joplin's "Cascades." San Francisco violinist David Reffkin played with pianist David Majchrzak, offering classy and delicately articulated performances of "That Italian Rag" by Al Piantadosi and "That Pussy Cat Rag" by Harry Taylor and William Gill, with a distinct "mee-yow" voiced in the strings.
With it also came more post-ragtime music. The spotlight on the Wednesday night concert was on stride piano music, where the left hand plays denser, shifting chords than in ragtime. The Friday night concert was dedicated to works by Jelly Roll Morton, who came up through the ragtime period but whose style was more syncopated and dense, a bridge between ragtime and early jazz. The Morton concert sold out, a testimony to the crowd-pleasing quality of his music and the skill needed to play it well.
Of the 28 numbers performed in the Saturday night concert, three were by Joplin. Eight were ragtime-era songs presented with amplified syncopation from added harmonies and multiple pianists. Others came from post-ragtime composers like Fletcher Henderson and Cole Porter.
Majchrzak, who served as the festival's music director, was keenly aware of the growing presence of non-ragtime selections.
"If you counted the [paid] concert pieces that were actually ragtime, it was 65 percent," Majchrzak said. "Through [the first two days of the festival], it was 85 percent. That's not too bad. We've talked about widening out. We're concerned about losing our audience. For the festival to survive, we're going to have to evolve.
One of the innovations in recent years, designed by Scott Joplin Foundation director Stacy Purvis, has been the "Musically Yours" concerts at the site of the original Maple Leaf Club, the namesake for Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." Performers started a 45-minute question-and-answer format, which has evolved into a free concert where the performers play their favorites.
This year, 20-year-old piano phenomenon Adam Swanson played classical music, in contrast to much of the spectacular layered stride piano work in his concerts. Majchrzak said many players are clamoring for that kind of opportunity.
The Thursday afternoon concert tried a "manly" theme, with all male performers. Majchrzak envisioned a concert where the players would "make the piano bleed" with spectacular playing. Bryan Wright and Martin Spitznagel delivered flying notes on a two-piano version of Zez Confrey's "Nickel in the Slot," and Bill Edwards played a version of "Tiger Rag" that combined touches from many other performers. There were also pensive moments, such as Brett Youens' original "Rag Doll Rag," a meditation on the ladies.
The concerts had heroic moments. Wisconsin pianist Jim Radloff hurt three of his fingers in a snowblower accident and played on with his bandaged hand. Washboard artist Mike Schwimmer, a festival favorite, turns 80 this year and was asked to provide accompaniment on almost all the paid concerts and many of the free concerts. A cake was presented to him at intermission of the Saturday night performance.
If one dates the ragtime revival from the film "The Sting" in 1973, the revival has now lasted twice as long as the original era itself. Ragtime more directly reflects a style of music than a period, and the festival included many new works showing how fresh the style can be. William McNally, who teaches at Queens College, NY, played his "Blue Donkey Rag" sprinkled with harmonies closer to Prokofiev than 19th Century songs.
Other new works showed originality and inspiration. Spitznagel played pieces by fellow performers, Max Keenlyside's "The Face Melter" and Swanson's "Novelty," both major challenges made to look easy by Spitznagel's skill. Brian Holland, one of the most polished of the performers, played his original, "Scram," written for his dog, at a rapid running pace.
For the Friday afternoon outdoor crowd, Swanson played an arrangement of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" that he learned from 1950s and 1960s piano recording artist Johnny Maddox, a version Maddox learned from his aunt, Zula, who had played at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The flashy showpiece included excerpts from Stephen Foster's "Old Folks At Home" and "Camptown Races," "Listen to the Mocking Bird," "Dixie," "Yankee Doodle" and "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
One of the festival's most touching moments was the duo of Jeff Barnhart on piano and his wife, Ann, on flute, playing "That Missing You Rag" by Nan Bostick. Written in memory of past ragtime greats like "Ragtime Bob" Darch and now played for Bostick herself, who died recently, the slow meditation rose like a lament, soared with vitality and faded like a dream.
On Friday, Spitznagel and Holland offered a full throttle romp through Spitznagel's original piece, "Seagull Shuffle." On Saturday, Barnhart and Holland heated up the audience with "When the Saints Go Marching In" and a sing-along on Fats Wallers' "Rump Steak Serenade" before bringing all the performers on stage for a multi-versed cavalcade into "Mama Don't Allow."
The festival's Outstanding Achievement in Ragtime Award was presented to Pat Lamb Conn, the daughter of one of the original ragtime giants, Arthur Lamb. In her 90s, Conn has been attending festivals around the country in recent years, including Sedalia, and helping to bring new appreciation to her father's work.
According to Purvis, attendance at the evening shows was fairly even with recent years.
There were fewer performers this year. Purvis said many who usually come on their own and are scheduled into the free concerts did not make the trip. "Those people are always welcome," Majchrzak said.
This was Purvis' last year as foundation director after eight years of service. She returns to the Kansas City area to take a marketing position with another not-for-profit organization. Majchrzak said he and the festival staff will pour over surveys completed by festival attendees and discuss next year's season when the festival board meets on June 19. Plans for the next Scott Joplin Festival, scheduled for June 5 through June 8, 2013, have already begun.