Can't get enough of Joplin and ragtime

Classical Music

April 21, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

A wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music has inundated the land," declared the Musical Courier in 1899. "It is artistically and morally depressing and should be suppressed by press and pulpit." No wonder people loved ragtime -- it if was that bad for you, it had to be good.

Ragtime, with its catchy tunes and, above all, distinctive rhythmic syncopation, could only have been born in America, a brilliant fusion of European and African-American idioms. No one tried harder than Scott Joplin to demonstrate the artistic merits of the new style.

"Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music," he said in 1908, around the time he began to create a grand opera. This was Treemonisha, an ambitious attempt to prove the deep cultural worth of ragtime and also deliver an uplifting message about how education could improve the plight of black America.

Joplin, who died in 1917, never saw his opera staged; that didn't happen until 1972, during the remarkable ragtime renaissance that suddenly made Joplin a household name again and even brought him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

The opera (with a libretto by the composer) is set in Arkansas in 1884, where superstitions and mystical beliefs in a community of former slaves get shaken up by Treemonisha, who had been found under a tree as an infant and went on to be educated by a white woman. Although the whole score is not in ragtime, its syncopated passages give it particular flavor and power, nowhere more so than in the sensational finale, "A Real Slow Drag."

The Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore presents a production of Treemonisha at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and May 4, 5 p.m. April 28 and 4:30 p.m. May 5 at Frederick Douglass Senior High School, 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway. For more information, call 410-329-6874 or 410-448-0745.

You can also hear ragtime's legacy this week in an enticing program by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra called "Classical Jazz."

One of the 20th century's greatest composers, Igor Stravinsky, directly acknowledged the influence of Joplin and like composers in a snappy, quirky piece from 1918 called simply Ragtime. Classical composers continued to draw inspiration as rag steadily progressed into jazz, with its improvisation and freer rhythms. Aaron Copland's vivid Music for the Theater from 1925 and the downright sublime Clarinet Concerto commissioned by Benny Goodman in 1947 are prime examples.

These works, along with music by Grieg and Gershwin, will be featured in the BCO concert, led by guest conductor Lara Webber (the BSO's assistant conductor). Bill Jenken, a member of both the BSO and BCO, will be the soloist in the Copland concerto.

The performance is at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Call 410-308-0402.

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