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Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

Scott Joplin Festival moves beyond ragtime

Thursday, June 14, 2012

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One of the highlights for the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival is the annual turn-of-the-century costume contest. The Miller family, shown above, took two years to gather blue and white outfits, between size changes for the children. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The biggest ragtime festival in the nation, the Scott Joplin Festival, ran four days last week in Sedalia. The celebration of the first uniquely American music moved more toward a general music festival this year, highlighting music that grew out of ragtime to a greater degree than in the past.

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.

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The only large music group booked for the Scott Joplin Festival this year was the Sedalia Ragtime Orchestra, a 10-person ensemble from southern California that uses the Missouri city for its namesake. Irene Silbert, sang period songs like "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" for the dancing audience. The orchestra played three hours at the Friday night dance. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The bouncy, syncopated fun of ragtime could be heard echoing through the streets of downtown Sedalia from several outdoor venues throughout the festival. Whether it was the diminutive Lou LeBrun playing Myron Floren's "Raggy Rag" on the accordion or pianist Sue Keller with a driving rendition of "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," ragtime filled the air.

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.

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The new sensation at this year's Scott Joplin Festival was 11-year-old Daniel Souvigny, who played with power and surprising musicality, receiving ovations everywhere he performed. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Many of the Saturday night performances were stunning. Jeff Barnhart's slow and pensive approach to Duke Ellington's "Solitude" showed how soft and sweet jazz piano can be, while Sue Keller belted Harry Akst and Grant Clarke's 1929 hit "Am I Blue?" with all the soul of the seasoned blues singer she is.

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.

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Accordian player Lou LeBrun, who has played in Springfield and with JoAnne Castle in Branson, was a morning favorite at the Scott Joplin Festival to wake up the crowd. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
"We're not telling the players not to play ragtime," Majchrzak said. "If we bring in more early modern jazz, it's music we all play anyway. We're not going to have blues and rock here."

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.

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One of the great fun moments at the festival came at the Thursday afternoon concert with a ragtime presentation of "Cantina Band," John Williams' piece from "Star Wars" which has had 900,000 hits on YouTube. Playing from left are: by Bryan Wright, Marty Spitznagel and washboard artist Mike Schwimmer. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The Friday afternoon concert focused on songs, a major part of ragtime-era repertory that often gets neglected by pianist performers. The audience sang along on numbers such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Toot Toot Tootsie" between bravura piano playing.

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.

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Richard Egan played "Sapphire Blue Rhythm," a recently discovered piece by Brun Campbell believed to have been written around 1943. Campbell was Scott Joplin's only white student in Sedalia in the 1890s. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The great sensation this year was 11-year-old Daniel Souvigny, who just won the junior division of the Old-Time Piano Playing Competition in Peoria, Ill. Word of Souvigny spread by word of mouth, and he was warmly received wherever he played. Souvigny proved to be no fluke when he played a largely improvised two-piano version of Fats Waller's "Handful of Keys" with Swanson, prompting a roaring cheer from the outdoor audience.

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.

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Violinist David Reffkin, with Dave Majchrzak on piano, played Euday Bowman's "Colorado Blues," an instrumental change that provided more of a chamber music quality to ragtime selections, during the Thursday night concert. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
There were many moments of great beauty and virtuosity during the festival.

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.

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Donald Ryan, from Tulsa, Okla., at left, and his son, Barron, at right, played George Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples" at the Thursday night concert. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The late afternoon crowds gather in force for a grand show of virtuosity under the Stark Pavilion Tent, next to the Pettis County Courthouse in the Sedalia square.

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.

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One of the most touching moments during the entire Scott Joplin Festival was Ivory and Gold, Jeff and Ann Barnhart, playing the late Nan Bostick's "That Missing You Rag" at the Thursday night concert. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
One of the great revelations at the festival was the symposium on the late works of Brun Campbell, the only white student Scott Joplin had in the 1890s. Campbell's manuscripts surfaced in items held by a second-hand dealer in California who sold them to novelist Larry Karp, who had written about Campbell. Pianist Richard Egan played a number of the pieces, never before heard and thought to have been written around 1943, sounding much like rags written 30 years earlier.

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.

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In a side event separate from the festival, songbird Ann Gibson and pianist Frederick Hodges presented a concert of train related songs at the historic Katy Depot. Gibson sang "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and "K-K-K-Katy" to a luncheon audience. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
In his third year as music director, Majchrzak said he found more of his rhythm in providing leadership. He and Purvis were both pleased with how the festival ran. Improvements made in the sound system for the Maple Leaf Pavilion made listening easier, while proper amplification at the Heckart Performing Arts Center at Sedalia High School is still proving challenging.

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.



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