Features and Reviews
Eric Marchese at the Shannon Performing Arts Center, 11/5/2000
By Paul Kosmala and Dianne Woolingham
In the simple yet elegant setting of The Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts (in Whittier), on Sunday afternoon November 5, 2000, Eric Marchese transported his audience through the history of Ragtime from 1899 to the present.
The works of Scott Joplin and other writers influenced by Joplin's style was the focal point of the concert. Marchese began with "Sunflower Slow Drag" (1901), by Scott Hayden with the trio written by Joplin. Next came two rags that were performed at the St. Louis World's Fair: "On the Pike," written by James Scott when he was only 18, and Theron Bennett's lively "St. Louis Tickle," both from 1904.
The program continued with Scott Joplin's "Weeping Willow." Written in 1903, it was one of the earliest rags of serious emotional expression, played slowly and with considerable feeling by Marchese. Next up were "Crazy Bone" (1913) by the prolific Charles L. Johnson and "That Poker Rag" (1909) by one of the ladies of ragtime, Charlotte Blake. These three pieces demonstrated the diversity of ragtime, yet all having the commonality of syncopation at their core.
From 1909, Joplin's "Solace, A Mexican Serenade," with its slow tango rhythm, seemed to change the mood, bringing a softer and perhaps melancholic feeling into the program.
Just prior to intermission, Marchese chose three pieces that he thought to be the greatest classic rags: "Fig Leaf" (1908) by Scott Joplin, "Top Liner Rag" (1916) by Joseph F. Lamb, and "Troubadour Rag" (1919) by James Scott. The audience entered the reception area of the Center walking to the happy beat and mood of these classic selections.
A set of "Rags of the Teens" directly followed the intermission, beginning with Charley Straight's proto-novelty "Blue Grass Rag" (1918), H. Clarence Woods' bluesy, ethereal "Slippery Elm" (1912) and "That Texas Rag" (1913), a rousing, two-fisted type of rag by Nell Wright Watson. All three illustrated the continued development of the mature era of ragtime. Marchese then delivered two dance-style selections, noting that ragtime's popularity increased as dance music in the teens: Fred Irvin's early (1914) foxtrot "Doctor Brown," and the "Kangaroo Hop," one of the fad "animal" dances, written by Melville Morris in 1915. Both numbers are peppy and lively, given their heavy reliance on the dotted-note rhythm that came to be referred to as the "foxtrot rhythm," both played with flair by Marchese. The set was completed by "Cheerful Blues," a 1922 Abe Oleman number that was alternately wistful and jazzy, showing the infusion of both blues and jazz elements into ragtime.
The program ended with some some of Marchese's original ragtime compositions. Noting that he has averaged some three rags per year since 1988, Marchese offered two of his three 1997 compositions. "The Last Princess," his ragtime elegy to Princess Diana, took us, classic-rag fashion, through the roller coaster of moods felt by the British populace in hearing of Diana's death: warm adulation (before the car crash), gut-wrenching disbelief, profound sadness and mourning, and, finally, a wistful acceptance. Almost completely opposite in mood, "A Barrel-House Bawl" seemed to reflect the influence of "Charleston Rag" and other greats by Eubie Blake. Commenting that when a composer is asked "What is your favorite piece?" the answer typically is the most recent piece completed, Marchese then played his millennium piece, "Zephyrs of Spring," a quiet and often stirring ragtime repast with four haunting themes. With these recent works, Marchese has seemingly hit his compositional stride.
As a final tribute to the history and the spirit of ragtime, Marchese ended the afternoon with a lilting, spirited rendition of "The Greatest Rag Ever," Joplin's towering 1899 composition "Maple Leaf Rag."
Clearly, Marchese is an accurate rag historian as well as an accomplished pianist. His brief introduction to each piece described the work's particular style of ragtime and several factors that may have had influence upon the composer. In the lobby of The Center, friends, family, and new admirers of Marchese waited to tell him their appreciation of his talent in playing, composing, and dedication to the preservation of ragtime.