Features and Reviews
OTMH Ragtime Festival 2006
By Bill Mitchell
What OTMH proprietor Bill Field announced as the longest continuing ragtime festival in the country was held Saturday and Sunday afternoons, June 17 and 18, in El Segundo. As it has in the past, this year's program featured four top-notch ragtime pianists. Last year's cast (Kathy Craig, Robbie Rhodes, Alex Hassan, and Frederick Hodges) was on hand for a return engagement.
Kathy opened the proceedings at the Bosendorfer grand with a performance of Scott Joplin's "Silver Swan Rag." Never copyrighted or published during the composer's lifetime, it was discovered on an old piano roll in 1970 by Maple Leaf Club co-founder and member Albert Grimaldi, and, transcribed by Dick Zimmerman and Donna McCluer, it was published by the club. Kathy's second selection was the Arthur Marshall/Scott Joplin collaboration, "Swipesy Cake Walk." She wrapped up her set with the James Scott masterpiece, "Grace and Beauty." Kathy is noted for her clean, sensitive renditions of the classic rags.
Robbie's first set reflected his interest in piano rolls and early 20th- century popular music. He opened with a rousing medley of "Jefferson Davis Is Coming to Town" and "Charley My Boy," replete with piano roll-ish embellishments. Neil Moret's exotic "Persian Rug" and Richard Whiting's "The Japanese Sandman" were given the Rhodes treatment. He wound up his set with a brisk "Red Pepper," one of Henry Lodge's best rags.
Coming all the way from Virginia, Alex Hassan brought some rare material with him. He opened with a medley of tunes from an operetta called "Grosse Tenor," written in 1955 by an Austrian-American, Chris Kalman. These tunes sounded more American than Viennese. He then called up Frederick Hodges to play a duet arrangement of six pieces by Muriel Pollack. One could only marvel at the sight-reading skills and technical facility of these two pianists as they seemingly breezed through the complex scores.
Frederick's specialty is novelty piano. He opened with "Coaxing the Piano," a Zez Confrey composition of 1922. A great admirer of Roy Bargy, Frederick played his "A Blue Streak," a number not published or copyrighted, but apparently transcribed from a piano roll, like Joplin's "Silver Swan." His third selection was the most famous of all the novelty rags, "Kitten on the Keys," a 1921 sensation by Confrey.
Just before intermission, the four pianists rendered an eight-handed arrangement of "Circus Day in Dixie."
Kathy opened the second half with Joe Lamb's "Ethiopia," a seldom-heard, lovely rag, beautifully played. For a contrast in mood and tempo, she played Nat Ayer's "King Chanticleer," also known as "The Original Texas Tommy Dance." She then invited Robbie to join her in a duet on Joplin's "Elite Syncopations."
Robbie soloed on "Storming the Castle," by Robert Ault, a contemporary composer. The Castle was a St. Louis bordello of the ragtime era, Robbie informed us. He followed up with another of his favorites, Percy Wenrich's "Snow Deer Rag." Frederick then joined Robbie for a duet version of Arthur Marshall's "Kinklets."
As an aside, Frederick told of first meeting Robbie in St. Louis at a ragtime festival on the Goldenrod Showboat back in 1984. Young Frederick was thrilled to play a duet there with such a famous piano player.
Returning to the work of piano roll artist and composer Roy Bargy, Frederick played his "Get Lucky" from 1925 and "Jim Jams" from 1922.
Alex and Frederick played four-handed arrangements of songs from James P. Johnson's musical, "Running Wild." The medley included the title song, of course, plus "Charleston," "Old Fashioned Love," and a couple of tunes I didn't recognize.
Traditionally these annual concerts conclude with all four pianists going to town on the two grand pianos, and this year was no exception. They played the catchy "Oceana Roll," with Frederick dashing to the mike for a couple of spirited vocal choruses. The audience demanded an encore, and the foursome complied with Irving Berlin's "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam." Again, Frederick displayed his showmanship with a vocal.
The matinee performance was well attended, and offered a wide variety of ragtime and ragtime related material interpreted by four of our finest stylists.
More OTMH Ragtime Festival Reviews: