Young musician knows the score

College student Andrew Greene rediscovers the energy and fun of ragtime with his own ragtime band

April 30, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

When legendary silent-film comedian Buster Keaton portrayed a clumsy university athlete trying to impress a girl, saving the day by becoming a human rudder for his rowing team, his flair for the sight gag was undeniable.

Perhaps not as evident to most modern-day viewers of the 1927 movie "College" or any of Keaton's classic motion pictures, is the major role the musical score plays.

But that's not the case with Andrew Greene.

Since the 2009 graduate of Broadneck High School discovered ragtime music during private piano lessons several years ago, he has immersed himself in it and never looked back.

"When I played Scott Joplin's ‘Maple Leaf Rag,' the rhythm of the music hit me and it stuck," said the 19-year-old engineering major at the University of Maryland, College Park, of one of the famous composer's most enduring pieces.

So consumed was Greene by ragtime's relentlessly lively beat that he recently formed his own student orchestra on campus to help spark a local resurgence of appreciation for the genre, which became popular just before the turn of the 20th century.

The Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra, named after a 1901 "rag" by Joplin, will perform Sunday, May 2, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Arnold.

For a short 20 years, ragtime — believed by some experts to be a contraction of "ragged time" for its syncopated melodies, which also place emphasis on the downbeat — was the popular music of its day, played in parlors and dance halls where people did the one-step along with the turkey trot, horse trot, grizzly bear trot and fox trot, Greene said.

In the 1920s, jazz music came on the scene, and America's love affair with ragtime was locked away in trunks and stored in attics and basements across the country, until people like Greene rediscovered the sound and began collecting the sheet music.

"It is incredibly fun-filled and lively, and you can tell the musicians are having an absolutely wonderful time," the college freshman said.

If Keaton were alive, he surely would be flattered by Greene's devotion to the distinctive brand of instrumental music that punctuated the actor's beloved portrayals of bumbling fools.

Among the 714 scores the Annapolis resident has collected — some of them more than a century old and 200 of them original — is a rare director's cue sheet for "College," which he hopes to use to guide his orchestra in accompanying the silent movie this fall, he said.

"It will be the first time in 83 years that the score has been played with the film in front of a live audience," said Greene with enthusiasm.

But he tempered his usual state of excitement with a dose of reality.

"It's hard to do and somewhat intimidating," he said of the timing required to accompany a silent film.

"The orchestra doesn't play continuously, and we may not realize we're behind the movie's action until it's too late," Greene said, noting that he must watch the screen and the pit at the same time. Besides, he has acquired only about half of the music needed to perform "College," a process he handles by bidding on eBay, the popular online auction site.

For now, the trove of sheet-music treasures Greene has amassed is enough to keep his ensemble busy as members prepare for their first concert.

"We are a re-creation of a standard ragtime orchestra using the ‘11 plus piano' format," Greene said. His ensemble is composed of 11 instruments: first and second violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, piccolo, clarinet, two cornets, trombone and drums — plus piano. The teen performers even dress in late-19th-century style.

But Greene is hardly the first modern musician to fall under the hypnotic spell of ragtime.

"Once it bites you, it's tough to walk away," said David Brightbill, who is organizing the second annual Central Pennsylvania Ragtime Festival on June 18-20 in the small town of Orbinsonia, Pa. Not only will the Peacherine Ragtime Orchestra perform there, but Greene will separately play piano.

"Andrew is a live wire," said Brightwell, who exchanges weekly e-mails with Greene. "He's thrown himself 110 percent into this music."

Rick Benjamin, director of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, concurred.

"It's refreshing to see someone taking a different path," said Benjamin, an acquaintance of Greene's for several years.

And Benjamin ought to know, since he also marched to a different beat 25 years ago when he founded his own ensemble, also at age 19. Today, Paragon is "the world's only year-round, professional ensemble re-creating ‘America's Original Music,'" he said.

"We need more young people like Andrew who have an appreciation for where we've been and where we're going," Benjamin said, noting the motifs of current music get their DNA from ragtime compositions.

But ragtime's popularity is somewhat cyclical, he said.

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