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Scott Joplin: The Evolution

Nick Catalano By

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Although his work has received attention since his death in 1916, the full scope of Scott Joplin's genius has not been revealed. His enormous popularity as a Ragtime king from the 1890's through the 1st decade of the 20th century has been chronicled from time to time and his rag composition The Entertainer is still hummable among present day teenagers. But his opera Treemonisha—a work that he considered his most important creation—has been virtually ignored, the recipient of less than a handful of productions since Joplin wrote it in 1911.

For a long time (since I started writing about American music almost 30 years ago) I've been waiting to see a performance of Treemonisha. Finally, last month, The Collegiate Chorale staged a spectacular performance at Alice Tully Hall and my wait was over. As I had long suspected, Treemonisha is a work of special beauty providing great insight into Joplin's vision, enabling us to grasp his view of American values and negro culture, and aiding us in uncovering new dimensions of his wondrous talent.

It must always be noted that Joplin considered himself an artist in the tradition of European composers. He had classical piano training as a child and studied composition formally at the George Smith College in Sedalia Missouri. Although he made his living as a café and club pianist playing such stalwart pieces as The Maple Leaf Rag, he never thought of himself as a negro musician in the vein of the Blues originators.

His ragtime pieces may indeed have been original creations incorporating important rhythmic African elements, but they were written down within the strictures of white European classicism and there was never to be any blueslike improvisaton.

Constructed in the popular 2/4 style of Sousa marches (John Phillip Sousa was a terrific fan of Joplin's, eager to see him perform whenever he could) the rags contained the form of movement and variation common in European symphonies. However, it was the rhythmic tension established by juxtaposing lyrical right-hand syncopations against the left-hand 2/4 steady beat that produced the magic. That tension echoed the enormously sophisticated African polyrhythmic tradition than ran through Joplin's veins and would become the basis of later styles such as "swing. Thus Joplin's ragtime compositions succeeded in establishing him as composer in the classical tradition and, that rarest of distinctions, as a new art music pioneer alongside figures such as Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky and Rorem.

The concert performance staged by The Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Robert Bass with prescient orchestrations by T.J. Anderson will certainly further the perception of Joplin as a titan in American music. The soloists included Anita Johnson, Marietta Simpson, Arthur Woodley, Robert Mack and Barron Coleman—all standout vocalists who performed brilliantly. In view of the fact that the opera has received so few performances since its origin almost 100 years ago, this Alice Tully performance should become a strategic guide for future productions which will, hopefully, become more frequent. Scott Joplin's music needs more attention from contemporary scholars.

Another milestone in the career of Brazilian percussionist extraordinaire Duduka Da Fonseca was achieved last week with a performance at Iridium. The gifted drummer, for over 25 years a first-call sideman for practically anyone recording authentic Brazilian music, celebrated the release of his 2nd CD as a leader. Samba Jazz in Black & White on the Zoho label features Anat Cohen on reeds, Helio Alves on piano, Guilherme Monteiro on guitars, and Leonardo Cioglia on bass. The session is a straight ahead Brazilian affair recalling the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim (with whom Da Fonseca was associated for several years) Toninho Horta and Hermeto Pascoal—all legends in the pantheon of samba sounds.

The performance at Iridium had some personnel changes from the CD but Da Fonseca's percussive output fulfilled expectations. He has no peers in his ability to distill the rhythmic essence of Brazil's magic music.


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