Features and Reviews
Morton Gunnar Larsen in San Francisco, 7/8/2000
By Ron Ross
Elegantly attired in black tie and tails, Morten Gunnar Larsen gave a brilliant and sensitive piano concert at the Richard Reutlinger Victorian home in San Francisco. Larsen is, to me, a master of nuance -- the ebb and flow of volume and tempo that distinguish the truly great pianists. He also adds a great depth of knowledge to his material which he conveys with a delightful sense of humor. The musical experience was enhanced by the setting, a truly remarkable Victorian home, furnished throughout in the style of the 1890's.
Larsen began with a trio of Joplin favorites, "Swipesy," "Palm Leaf Rag" and "Original Rags." I was struck by the way he slowed down "Palm Leaf," which brought out the melodic excellence of this rag, one of my personal Joplin favorites.
Next was "Levee Revels" by William Christopher O'Hare, from the early 1890's, followed by some Jelly Roll Morton, which Larsen plays with great understanding of the jazz-oriented flavor of the music as well as the technical excellence required to make it come alive. First, the best title of the night: "Don't Leave Me, Baby, But If You Must Leave Me, Leave Me a Dime For Beer." Next, "The Pearls" (named for a necklace worn by a waitress in Tijuana), and finally, Jelly Roll Morton's arrangement of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." I found it jazzy and delightfully inventive and, of course, well-played.
The first half of the program wound up with Eubie Blake's masterpiece "Charleston Rag," a lively, pyrotechnical East Coast rag, written in 1899.
The long intermission enabled the crowd of about 70 to enjoy a tour through the house and to sample the sounds from the marvelous music machines Mr. Reutlinger has collected, such as his several "photoplayers" which were used to accompany silent movies and could be operated to play piano, strings, drums, and various special effects to coincide with the action on the screen. We didn't get to see any films, but you could imagine it as you heard the music. Unfortunately, Mr. Reutlinger was out of town and we missed the chance to meet him and thank him for opening his house to these ragtime concerts as he does several times each year.
Morten began part 2 with two quiet, moody piano pieces by Bix Beiderbecke, best known as a great jazz cornetist but who, according to Larsen, began his musical career as a pianist. First, "In the Dark" and then, perhaps his best known piano composition, "In a Mist." Next, an obscure piece by Kurt Weill, written during two years spent in Paris (I did not get the name of this number).
Then came Eubie Blake's "Randi's Rag" written by Blake for his Norwegian tour in the late 1970's. Randi was the first name of the young female journalist who arranged for Eubie to come to Norway
Next came two wonderful David Thomas Roberts pieces-"Waterloo Girls" and "Memories of a Missouri Confederate." My notes indicate: "reflective, beautifully melodic, happy/sad memories-good times interspersed with scenes of hardship and pain as the mood shifts back and forth from major to minor."
Eubie Blake, during an era of intense competition among ragtime pianist-composers, composed a very difficult piece in 1910 called "Troublesome Ivories" which Larsen played to perfection and received a standing ovation from the audience. As an encore, he left us with perhaps the most beautiful piece of music in modern ragtime literature, Roberts' "Roberto Clemente."
Larsen will be in Southern California next summer with the Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra. I strongly recommend this group to any ragtime aficionado who appreciates the orchestral approach to this music. I have been listening and relistening to the group's CD "Echoes from the Snowball Club" and believe Larsen to be a true musical genius, both as a pianist and as an orchestra leader and arranger.