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ROCKY MOUNTAIN RAGTIME FESTIVAL REVIEW 2002*
By Fred Hoeptner
The Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival resumed this year under musical director Scott Kirby for its tenth annual edition after a year’s hiatus. The board of directors chaired by Jack Rummel had successfully obtained funding assistance from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District of Denver and the Meet the Composer Foundation and had obviously done a great organizing job. The primary venue was the comfortable and acoustically superb Unity Church in Boulder with after-hours activities at the Ramada Inn. Previously the festival had extensively supplemented the ragtime by including in its schedule selections from peripheral musical genres, primarily various syncopated Latin styles and the amalgamation known as "Terra Verde". This year the festival reverted back toward ragtime from the extreme exemplified by the 2000 festival, except, strangely, for the climactic Saturday night concert.
Featured performers included pianists Frank French, Brian Keenan, Scott Kirby, David Thomas Roberts, Jack Rummel, and Mimi Blais; violinist Sophie Rivard; guitarist Giovanni DeChiaro; pianist Trebor Tichenor, his daughter Virginia, and her husband Mary Eggers, known as the Tichenor Family Trio; Trebor’s four-piece band The St. Louis Ragtimers; and the five-piece Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra led by pianist Rodney Sauer.
The opening concert Thursday evening featured a wide spectrum of ragtime. Some highlights: Roberts playing his "Memories of a Missouri Confederate," which I hadn’t heard in several years; and French and Kirby duetting on "Belle of Louisville" and "Lone Jack to Knob Noster". This concert introduced Giovanni DeChiaro, music professor from Mississippi and guitarist extraordinaire, who has transcribed 52 Joplin compositions for guitar. Also introduced in this concert was violinist Sophie Rivard, who became an audience favorite. Blais had recently introduced Rivard, principal second violinist with l’Orchestre Metropolitan de Montreal, to ragtime, and she had quickly become a devotee. At this concert and during the remainder of the festival they featured the compositions of French-Canadian composer Jean-Baptiste Lafreniere (1874-1912), known as "The National Strauss of Canada" for his waltzes. Unfortunately his rags, as admitted by Mimi, are pleasant but unexceptional.
A two-day series of symposia began Friday morning with "Ragtime Orientation". Subjects broached by attendees included ragtime’s relation to Terra Verde, stride, and novelty piano. Scott Kirby responded citing the spectrums that exist between these genres. He cited Lamb’s "Bird Brain Rag" as falling in the transitional area combining the devices of novelty piano in the treble with the tenths characteristic of stride in the base. "Novelty piano exploits the act of playing the piano as opposed to melodic qualities". Two symposium sessions featured a "Composers Spotlight" in which Roberts, Rummel, French and Keenan discussed their compositions and the musical ideas that inspired them. Rummel showed how "Waiting for the Zenith" incorporated a three-note pattern that repeated in three different keys. Roberts demonstrated how he changes "harmonic blocks" under a repeating melody. He explained how "Roberto Clemente" had evolved from watching a documentary about the life of the heroic baseball player who died in an airplane crash while ferrying food to disaster victims. French presented "Cuban Encounter." George Foreman, renowned bandmaster, musicologist, and leader of the New Columbian Brass Band, presented "Band Rags and Brass Bands in the Ragtime Era." He discussed the standard formats for marches, development of band instrumentation following the invention of brass instruments with valves in the 1830s, and rags that bands have favored.
"Folk Ragtime" led off the Friday series of specialty concerts featuring Roberts, Keenan, and the Tichenor Family. Next in the series was John DeChiaro with "Joplin on Guitar." Mimi Blais followed with a group of her specialties. "Composer Spotlight" featured new ragtime by Rummel, Keenan, and Roberts. "Dynamic Duos" featured compositions of Joe Lamb, Joplin, and others. Highlights were Roberts’ performance of Lamb’s unpublished "Beehive Rag" and Blais’ and Rivard’s performance of Balcom’s "Graceful Ghost" featuring a violin obbligato and extensive use of double stops.
The Friday evening concert yielded a variety of ragtime delights. Featured were the Tichenor Family Trio, Keenan, and French, a tribute to Eubie Blake by Kirby and Blais, and a set of songs and instrumentals by the St. Louis Ragtimers marking their fortieth anniversary and sounding as lively as ever.
Specialty concerts resumed Saturday with "Folk Ragtime of Today" featuring the Tichenor Family Trio and Jack Rummel, followed by a "Joplin Tribute" set featuring Roberts, Kirby, DeChiaro, and Blais and Rivard. Highlights were the violin and piano duets on "Easy Winners," "Bethena," and "Elite Syncopations." French offered the next session "Out of the Box (Terra Verde and Beyond)", as an opportunity for the performers to play something outside the recognized scope of ragtime. Keenan, French, and Kirby performed their own compositions, primarily in the Terra Verde category. The St. Louis Ragtimers finished the series with nine of their favorites including "Blind Boone’s Southern Rag Medley #2," "Colonial Glide Rag" by Pratt and "King Chanticleer."
The Saturday evening feature concert always draws the largest audiences, many of whom are from the Boulder-Denver area and are unfamiliar with ragtime. This year was no exception, the seating being about three-quarters occupied. However, attendees heard precious little ragtime. Except for DeChiaro, who played two Joplin rags and his 6/8 march "Antoinette," Blais, who played one rag by Lafreniere, and perhaps Mont Alto’s renditions of "Solace" (although Joplin calls it "a Mexican serenade") and Kelly’s 1910 composition "A Certain Party" (labeled "rag and two-step"), the concert was devoid of it. This is to disparage neither the quality of the performances nor of the music presented, which I enjoyed. Indeed, a careful reading of the festival program revealed that the concert was advertised as featuring a "special French-American tribute". Music presented included, among others, that of American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, French musette music, Hatian meringue music, music of Trinidadian Lionel Velasco, several waltzes by Lafreniere, "Golliwog’s Cakewalk" by Debussy, and a waltz by Hal Isbitz written in honor of a French singer. But it seems to me that a golden opportunity to introduce a receptive audience to the broad scope of mainstream ragtime of yesterday and today was missed.
Sunday began with a brunch at the Ramada Inn followed by open piano all day. This can be one of the most interesting parts of the festival with pianists of all ability levels playing rags both popular and obscure.
For many ragtimers and me, the Monday night concert is the highlight of the festival. The venue, the showroom of the Chris Finger Piano Company in nearby Niwot, fosters an illusion of total immersion in music. Highlights were Keenan and Rivard duetting on Rummel’s ragtime waltz "When The Work Is Done I’ll Dance," Eggers’ piano performance of "Doin’ the Hambone," and Blais’ Zez Confrey showpiece incorporating excerpts from the classics. The concert climaxed with five pianos and a string bass performing "Belle of Louisville" to a standing ovation and the same plus violin performing "Maple Leaf Rag." Following the concert Chris Finger treated all to a reception with food and refreshments in the pavilion adjoining the showroom, the perfect conclusion to an exciting festival.
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*The opinions expressed in this review are that of the author.