Features and Reviews
Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival 2005
By Fred Hoeptner
Headlined this year by Joshua Rifkin, renowned classical pianist, musicologist, arranger, and conductor who was instrumental in legitimizing ragtime as classical music, the thirteenth, and ostensibly final, annual Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival opened Thursday, July 21 in Boulder, CO and closed the following Sunday evening having presented four major evening concerts, nine hours of specialty concerts, four symposia, a cabaret event, a Sunday brunch and dance, and indeterminate hours of late evening "afterburner" sessions. The Board of Directors chaired by Jack Rummel had obtained funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, radio station KGNU, and the donations of many individuals. As usual, Musical Director Scott Kirby accomplished his usual superb job of selecting performers and organizing the programs and the Chris Finger Piano Company supplied the concert quality Schimmel Grand Pianos. In addition, a cadre of 32 indispensable volunteers helped to make the festival a rousing success. Headquarters hotel for the festival was the elegant Millennium Harvest House, which comfortably accommodated the late evening "afterburner" activities.
Was it the curse of thirteen? I don't believe it, but the festival certainly encountered a major obstacle when last February the usual church venue for which it had contracted notified Events Director Steven Stiller of a conflict with a wedding that the minister had scheduled for a church member. A desperate search located another venue, the First United Methodist Church, in many ways superior—close to downtown, a vaulted sanctuary for reverberant acoustics, an accommodating management, and a lower rental—except for one factor: it wasn't air conditioned. Unfortunately the festival board's entreaties for moderate weather weren't answered and the festival weekend saw triple-digit temperatures equaling all-time records. However, the show went on as scheduled with only a little grumbling.
Hosted by Jack Rummel, the Thursday evening Kick-Off Concert opened with Brian Keenan, a ten-year ago graduate in music at the University of Colorado, performing Brun Campbell's "Frankie and Johnny Rag" in the folk rag tradition followed by Robert Hampton's "Agitation Rag." Canadian Sophie Rivard, violinist who has become a favorite on the ragtime circuit, and Scott Kirby duetted on Joplin's "Paragon Rag" and Brazilian composer Nazereth's "Favorito." With Sophie remaining onstage, Frank French announced that his search for "violinistic" ragtime had begotten Joplin's "Weeping Willow." French and Kirby then duetted on "Swipesy Cakewalk." Youthful pianist and newlywed Sara Roth Vanegas played Nazereth's tango "Odeon" with professional aplomb. In addition to superb musicianship, Anne and Jeff Barnhart, flute and piano, interspersed their act with amusing repartee. They finished the first half with three pieces—Guy's sprightly ragtime waltz "Echoes from the Snowball Club," my own sentimental "Aura of Indigo," which Jeff described as "a musical prayer," and James Scott's spirited "Ophelia Rag."
David Thomas Roberts began the second half with Morton's "Stratford Hunch," his own "Roberto Clemente," and the title cut from his new CD "Discovery," a delicately melodic piece composed as a commission and commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition bicentennial. French returned for Gottschalk's 1840 piece from Cuba, "El Cocoye." Keenan followed with Rummel's "Waiting for the Zenith." Consummate strider Paul Asaro finished the concert with a set of three: "Old Fashioned Love" and "The Blueberry Rhyme" by James P. Johnson played at moderate tempos followed by "Cherokee" in a spectacular stride arrangement inspired by pianist Donald Lambert.
Friday morning the first of the symposia began with David Thomas Roberts' session on Romanticism. Starting with the cultural definition from the dictionary (here severely abridged), "An artistic and intellectual movement...characterized by...an emphasis on imagination and the emotions...," Roberts explained its application to music and added that the movement can be seen as a rejection of features of classicism (which preceded it) and its restrictive formality. Proclaiming "Above all I'm a Romantic artist," he played an excerpt from Chopin's Prelude #1 to demonstrate Romanticism's influence on ragtime and Terra Verde through the use of broken chord figures, per "Maple Leaf Rag" and his "Waterloo Girls." He also pointed out his use of non-chordal tones and chromaticism in his composition "The Diamonds," features that Romanticism had introduced to classical music. Ragtime and tango composer Hal Isbitz followed with a session on Ernesto Nazareth's music. A Joplin contemporary, Nazareth was staff pianist in the orchestra at Rio de Janeiro's Odeon Theater who composed many celebrated tangos. Isbitz compared the many similarities and differences between ragtime and Nazareth's tangos.
Returning to music, the Tribute to Scott Joplin session featured Scott Kirby and Joshua Rifkin. Kirby performed Joplin classics "The Strenuous Life," "The Cascades," "Leola," "Wall Street Rag," and "Fig Leaf" nuanced with subtle dynamic variations. He then introduced Rifkin as "the "first performer to put Joplin first." Rifkin began with Pine Apple Rag, taken at a sprightly pace but not rushed, with copious use of dynamic nuance. Describing Joplin's reuse of the pattern in the first strain of Maple Leaf Rag for a number of his other compositions not as evidence of failing inspiration but rather of his returning for new inspiration, Rifkin performed "Gladiolus Rag," remarking that it showed Joplin's connection with Chopin. Observing that Joplin seemed to be looking ahead several decades to the rise of Terra Verde, he followed with Joplin's Mexican serenade "Solace" performed with dramatic intensity. He finished the memorable set with Joplin's truly valedictory "Magnetic Rag."
The afternoon specialty concerts began with Roberts' Ragtime and Terra Verde set. He opened with audience favorite "Through the Bottomlands," followed with three dramatic pieces from his newest CD Discovery, and finished with two selections from New Orleans Streets suite. Brian Keenan revisited a set of pieces that he had learned when first attracted to ragtime including his own first rag composition "Frustration" inspired by Max Morath's version of Lamb's "American Beauty." The Music of Jack Rummel followed played by Kirby, Roberts, Keenan, the Barnharts, and Rummel himself. Roberts gave his romantic "A Quiet Snowfall" a sensitive reading and Kirby rollicked through "Lone Jack to Knob Noster." Next, Paul Asaro, astounding strider and Fats Waller imitator, sat down at the piano and exclaimed, "First I thought he [Waller] was too modern. I was into Eubie Blake. Then I heard him sing, and he was my boy!" Paul strode alternately placidly and frenetically through a set of pieces by Willie "The Lion" Smith, Jelly Roll, Waller, and Eubie, finishing with Duke Ellington's rouser "Caravan."
The Barnharts opened the Friday Evening Concert with Hampton's "Agitation Rag" followed by a Hal Isbitz tango that they had commissioned, "Anistanza," imbued with Hal's typical harmonic sophistication. Jeff soloed on Morton's "Shreveport Stomp," and Anne rejoined for his beautiful "Aspens on the River" followed by Charles Johnson's "Blue Goose Rag" with its charming trio. Roberts assumed the stage for his bittersweet "Memories of a Missouri Confederate" and "Kreole." Then he presented the world premier of his newest composition, "Nancy's Library," a dreamy, melodic commission. Joshua Rifkin, swaying as he played, began with "Lily Queen." At his daughter's request and in consideration of her turning pages on "Lily Queen," he performed a beautiful "Bethena," full of sensitive dynamic and tempo variations. Two quiet pieces completed the set, "Vitorioso" (Nazareth) and "Heliotrope Bouquet."
Frank French and his Phantom Band, including French, piano; Sophie Rivard, violin; Anne Barnhart, flute; a bass guitarist; and four Latin percussionists in various combinations, took over for the second half. Beginning with French's "Womba Bomba," they continued with "Arrojado" (Nazareth), "Pine Apple Rag" (Joplin), "Porto Alegre" (Isbitz), three danzas by Ignacio Cervantes, and concluded with a jazz original by French, "Duke's Dream."
Saturday morning the festival resumed with Ed Berlin's engrossing symposium, The Echoes of Ragtime, focusing on the influence of ragtime on classical composers. Prominently figuring in his presentation were Johannes Brahms, who probably never heard ragtime despite Rudy Blesh's (author of They All Played Ragtime) assertions implying the contrary; Percy Grainger, who was attracted to ragtime; Claude Debussy, who employed ragtime syncopation in "Golliwog's Cakewalk" to envision a black doll from a children's book; Eric Satie, who borrowed from Irving Berlin's "That Mysterious Rag" for a ballet piece; and Charles Ives, who injected terse quotes from the song "Hello, Ma Baby" into his cacophonous 1906 orchestral work "Central Park in the Dark." Berlin summarized asserting that the classical composers who did integrate ragtime drew from popular ragtime songs, not the classic ragtime of Joplin, Scott, and Lamb.
Frank French's Symposium on Rhythm demonstrated, with audience and performer assistance, the uses of Latin rhythm instruments—maracas, the clave, the cowbell, the cabasa, and various drums—to perform indigenous musical styles and demonstrated the result with a Latinized "Maple Leaf Rag."
Barnhart Mania followed with Anne and Jeff generating their usual audience enthusiasm. Their program interspersed formal ragtime with zany novelties, such as the loud and chuggy "Gasoline Rag" (1911) envisioning an early flivver outing. Jeff soloed on the first live performance of his beautiful "Mystic Memories." The Youth Concert featured Sarah Roth Vanegas, who performed pieces by composers Nazareth (Braziliero), Cervantes (Two Danzas), Lecuona ("The Parade"), and French ("La Cumbia") with aplomb; and Adam Yarian, college freshman phenom, whose program spanned the gamut from Joplin ("Weeping Willow," performed with appropriate embellishments) to Morton ("Mr. Jelly Lord") and James P. Johnson ("Snowy Morning Blues"). After expressing his disappointment at how little attention is paid to early jazz and ragtime in the jazz curriculum at his university U.S.C., he concluded with "I Found a New Baby" taken at a heroic tempo but with total accuracy.
Joshua Rifkin opened the afternoon specialty concerts. With supreme emotion, he essayed "Weeping Willow" and a group of Nazareth classics "Odeon," "Night of July," and "Plangente." He announced his affinity for the works of Roberts and Kirby, and remarked on the similarity of the harmonic progression in the first strain of "Roberto Clemente" to that used by folk singer Red River Dave (McEnery) for his song "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight" (both Clemente and Earhart having died in plane crashes). He then performed Roberts' impassioned classic. Having previously asked Kirby and Roberts for one each of their compositions, he followed with the premier of Kirby's "Choro in E" and a dramatic reading of Roberts' "Discovery." The Americana session followed featuring compositions reminiscent of American landscapes capped by French's performance of Gottschalk's elaborate arrangement of George Root's "Battle Cry of Freedom."
Back at the Millennium Hotel, 4:30 p.m. begat the "stride cabaret" featuring Asaro, Barnhart, and Yarian. Following some individual performances, Asaro and Barnhart led a discussion of the features that distinguish stride from related genres; for example, ragtime is "compositional-based" whereas stride is "performance-based." Then they picked a tune at random, "Cruising down the River," and converted it to stride. Later each played his own arrangement of "Handful of Keys" to demonstrate a variety of stride interpretations. The concert climaxed with all three performers engaging in a rousing "musical chairs" version of "Royal Garden Blues" on two pianos.
Scott Kirby opened the Saturday evening feature concert with a Stephen Foster medley. Sophie joined for "Heliotrope Bouquet" featuring double stops on the violin and harmony leads. Kirby continued with two of his compositions, "Carousel for Leah Marie" dedicated to his daughter, and "Charbonneau," a striking mood piece but admittedly not ragtime. Brian Keenan took the stage for two of his compositions ("Wood Smoke" and "The White Squall") and William Ryden's morose "Sadly, Sadly Little Rag." Youth performers Sarah Roth Vanegas essayed the Gottschalk "Danza," and Adam Yarian the trad jazz standard "Royal Garden Blues" with amazing speed and accuracy. Paul Asaro assumed his Fats Waller persona for "Aloysius, Do the Dishes" and "Truckin'" followed by Morton's "Creepy Feeling," and a spirited rendition of Johnson's "Carolina Shout" leading into the intermission. The second half was devoted to the music of the superlative five-piece Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra led by pianist Rodney Sauer, whose offerings ranged across a broad spectrum of ragtime, Latin, and salon orchestral music. Each year Sauer arranges a composition from a contemporary ragtime composer—this year, it was Scott Kirby's bittersweet "Ravenna." Period ragtime included Cooke's 1914 "Blame It on the Blues," Moreland's 1920 "Meadowlark Rag," and Lucien Denny's "Red Devil Rag." Mont Alto shifted to their silent film mode in the latter part of the concert to accompany Fatty Arbuckle's 1916 absurdity The Waiters' Ball.
Sunday morning's ragtime brunch at the hotel featured an elegant repast followed in the afternoon by dancing to the strains of Mont Alto.
This year the closing concert was held Sunday evening at the church, the former venue at the Chris Finger piano showroom having been outgrown. Host Jack Rummel lamented the sentimental occasion marking the final concert of the final festival, at least under current management; however, the status as a nonprofit corporation and the web site will be maintained for an indefinite period. A major factor in the decision was musical director Scott Kirby's pending relocation to France. French and Kirby opened with the cheery "Belle of Louisville," countering the dolor. French and Rivard duetted on three Latin pieces, Brian Keenan assumed the stage for his "Whitewater" and a rarely heard Joplin song "I'm Thinking of My Pickaninny Days," and Rummel and Rivard performed Rummel's ragtime waltz "When the Work Is Done I'll Dance" as a true duet, alternating leads. Selections by Sarah Vanegas (two dances by Cervantes), David Thomas Roberts ("Madison Heights Girl" and his new composition "Thompson Falls," full of brooding dissonance), Rivard and Kirby (a Brazilian tango), and Adam Yarian ("Fingerbuster") followed. After the intermission Rummel, the current board, and volunteers took the stage as Jack recited the history of the festival and individually thanked those who had made it possible. The music resumed with Roberts and Asaro duetting on "King Porter Stomp." Also memorable were Adam Yarian's "Kitchen Tom" (Blake), nuanced with subtle rhythmic effects for dramatic impact, and Paul Asaro's "Caravan." Frank French, who had opened the first Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival, chose as the festival farewell Gottschalk's "El Cocoye," thus ending thirteen years of eclectic syncopated musical fare.
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