It’s not uncommon that certain musicians who have achieved a degree of renown as interpreters of the classical repertoire dip into other realms of music as a “crossover” lark. Their Popular Music as a Second Language experiments (always stocked in the Classical section of the CD aisle) are usually characterized by an unmistakable potted-palm formality. There’s a rigidity and a plumminess to such efforts, as if Swing itself were held captive within a tight cummerbund.
What’s rare is when a concert virtuoso is equally at home in another genre and shines there. Pianist Richard Dowling has delighted listeners for over two decades with Chopin, Ravel, and Beethoven, has published critical performing editions of the works of Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and is a brilliant and captivating performer of Ragtime. Throughout 2017 he will observe the centenary of the death of Scott Joplin with a landmark series of all-Joplin concerts nationwide, including an unprecedented two-concert cycle of the complete piano works of Joplin in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on April 1, 2017, exactly one hundred years to the day Joplin died in New York.[Read:Richard Dowling Plays the Complete Scott Joplin at Carnegie Hall & Why Scott Joplin Still Matters]
– Captivated by Ragtime –
Dowling is no slumming dilettante. He received the standard piano instruction in the classics from an “old school” piano teacher from age five, but the popular music of the early twentieth century was always playing at his childhood home in Houston, Texas. When his parents bought him a used baby grand, a broken-down Aeolian player piano was thrown in as part of the deal. “My father, who was an engineer, saw that as a challenge. He and I rebuilt the player and got it working again.”
When Richard Dowling was nine years old, George Roy Hill’s The Sting came out—and Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was everywhere. Nobody had heard Ragtime for years, and suddenly in 1974 it was played in heavy rotation on AM radio stations. Like millions of others, Dowling was captivated by Ragtime. “I begged my mother to buy the Collected Piano Works of Joplin for me at the music store in Houston. It was ten dollars, which seemed like a fortune to me back then. I still have that original New York Public Library edition with the big green maple leaf on the cover. Its well-worn pages and covers are a testament to 40 years of study and practice.”
While he was systematically working his way through the Collected Works, his family accumulated dozens of new QRS piano rolls for the restored player. “This was all music my parents loved, mostly from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.” They had rolls of “It Had to Be You,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and lots of Ragtime. “I was getting a popular music education but I didn’t realize it—I was just having fun.”
– Eine Kleine Hausmusik –
At a time when most families would be content to spend their evenings goggling at television, the Dowlings had the neighbors and relatives coming over for musicales. Richard’s father played banjo and ukulele, and Richard would sit at the baby grand while his mother pumped the Aeolian—“dueling pianos” and everybody sang. “Germans have a word for it [the practice of entertaining at home by singing and playing instruments] –hausmusik.”
Richard’s piano teacher had no particular love of Ragtime, but didn’t discourage his interest either. When he mastered “Maple Leaf Rag” on his own and played it for her at a lesson, “she almost fell off the piano bench.” (When he was a sophomore in high school, she rushed to enter him in a competition for popular piano. He played “Maple Leaf” and won first prize.)
He continued to develop his virtuosic touch in the classics, and made his orchestral debut at age eighteen, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor with the Fort Worth Symphony. He graduated summa cum laude from the music program at the University of Houston under the tutelage of renowned concert pianist Abbey Simon, and subsequently received his Master’s Degree at Yale. In 1986, the Yale Symphony held a campus-wide competition to determine who would perform Mozart’s K. 488 Piano Concerto (No. 23 in A) with the orchestra. “We wanted to find the best concert pianist at Yale. That turned out to be Richard Dowling.” During his time at Yale The New York Times described him as “an especially impressive, fine young pianist.”
– Raves for Gershwin –
Despite his immersion in classical piano (a doctorate from the University of Texas, along with private studies at the Conservatoire in Nice and at the Ecole Normale in Paris) he maintained his love of Ragtime and old popular music. In 2001 he released Sweet and Low-Down, an all-Gershwin CD on the Klavier label. From a review in the March 2002 issue of American Record Guide: “The young pianist Richard Dowling dances through 29 Gershwin numbers with exuberance and a natural feel for rubato. He plays with what Gershwin called the stenciled style—fast, upbeat, and snappy. Dowling’s inspiration is Gershwin’s own style, which eschews heaviness and sentimentality. The recording has a dry sparkle perfect for Dowling’s no-nonsense playing. If you love Gershwin, don’t miss this!”
In 2004 Klavier records issued Dowling’s World’s Greatest Piano Rags, a compilation including the compositions of Artie Matthews, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, Zez Confrey, and Scott Joplin. William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag” (written in 1970) is particularly gorgeous, and Dowling handles its jazz harmonies with sensitivity and aplomb. Donald Vroon wrote in the July 2004 ARG, “Dowling plays with tremendous zip and zest.… I am sure he is the best ragtime pianist I have ever heard.”
– A Big Family Reunion –
Dowling first attended the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri in June 2007 after former artistic director Sue Keller heard him play in Illinois in 2006 and invited him on the spot to the festival. “I was amazed to discover that a Scott Joplin festival existed. I was not at all aware of our Ragtime community.” At first he was thrown by the informality of Ragtime audiences, including their tendency to applaud in the middle of a piece (after a particularly fancy run, say). “I’d never heard of people clapping while somebody was playing. The first time it happened I thought somebody in the audience dropped something and they were just reacting to that.”
He was told that the custom was just to smile and acknowledge the applause—and to keep playing. “That means they like you!” the other performers told him. He soon learned to appreciate the warmth and friendliness of the Ragtime festival scene. “It’s so much different from the classical world. In classical music, everybody’s always competing with each other, trying to step on each other, whereas a Ragtime festival is like a big family reunion. All of the musicians are incredibly supportive of each other, and we’re always running to catch each other’s performances.”
This year Richard Dowling found the Scott Joplin Festival especially delightful. “This year the weather was perfect—or as perfect as it could be for June in central Missouri.” Other years it has been blisteringly hot, and two years ago it rained throughout the whole weekend. Brian Holland was the new director of this year’s festival, and his theme was Legends—that is, the living legends of the Ragtime Revival, including Dick Zimmerman, Terry Waldo, and Max Morath who all attended.
– His “Ragtime god” –
The personal highlight of the festival for Dowling was sharing the stage with his Ragtime idol, Max Morath. Morath retired from performing a few years ago, but in addition to participating in a panel discussion at Sedalia, he emceed an evening show at the Liberty Center, “Easy Winners.” Dowling was scheduled to play first, and Morath introduced him and announced his nationwide Joplin Centennial concert series next year. “How grateful and honored I was for his endorsement!”
Richard wanted to open with the Joplin rag, “The Easy Winners” (that being the name of the evening’s concert). Max Morath said, “Why Joplin?” Richard replied, “Well, it’s partially your fault. You’ve been my Ragtime god ever since I was a little boy, ‘I swear to Max!’”
Dowling played two more pieces for his opening set, “Pasquinade” a proto-rag by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), and “Charleston Claude,” a brand new rag composed by Vincent Johnson (born 1992) that was warmly received. Morath is currently gathering a portfolio of new ragtime including works by Johnson to be published soon, but told Richard he hadn’t heard of “Charleston Claude,” which is Johnson’s ragtime take on Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” “That’s because he just wrote it!” Richard told him. (Dowling has been including it recently in his classical recitals, preceded by the original “Clair de lune” and says audiences love the pairing.)
– Pro Musica –
The inspiration for the all-Joplin concerts—and the Complete Joplin piano music CD set to be released on Bryan Wright’s Rivermont Records label—came about after Dowling played an all-Joplin recital on the Pro Musica concert series in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in January 2015. San Miguel, a remote city in the high plateau of central Mexico about four hours north of Mexico City, is home to a large expatriate community, mostly retired Americans and Europeans. Pro Musica brings in world-class concert performers to perform at a local Anglican church, St. Paul’s, with an excellent Steinway and reverberant acoustics.
Dowling has played many concerts for Pro Musica over the past ten years. Some of his concerts have been devoted to all-Beethoven, all-Chopin, and all-Gershwin. After he presented his “Just Joplin!” program last year, there was an immediate—and spontaneous—en masse standing ovation. “The audience literally jumped out of its seats all at the same time. I’ve seen pianists like Martha Argerich get such a thrilling reaction, but it was the first time it had ever happened to me. The audience in San Miguel just went wild for Scott Joplin.”
This got Dowling thinking about the possibility of performing all-Joplin recitals elsewhere. And then he realized that the centenary of Joplin’s death was approaching in 2017, and decided to commemorate Joplin by playing all his piano works in a single concert cycle. He consulted with historian Edward Berlin, the world’s foremost Joplin scholar whose King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era was just republished in an updated edition this year, and Dr. Berlin assured him that no pianist had ever performed the complete Scott Joplin cycle from memory in concert.
– Unprecedented –
He also conferred with pianist Bryan Wright, who has just completed his Ph.D. in musicology with a dissertation on the history of the Ragtime Revival since 1940. Dr. Wright told him while there certainly have been many pianists who have recorded all of the Joplin works (most notably Richard Zimmerman, Scott Kirby, John Arpin, and Dick Hyman) he too had never heard of the complete Joplin having been done in live performance before.
Many pianists have played concert cycles of a particular composer. Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, and they have often been performed in a cycle of about six concerts. Scott Joplin wrote 53 works for piano, including rags, marches, cakewalks, and waltzes. His entire repertoire could theoretically be played in just under four hours in one sitting. To prevent audience (and pianist) fatigue, Dowling has divided Joplin’s works into two consecutive concerts, Parts 1 & 2, scheduled for the afternoon and evening of April 1, 2017 at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York.
Pacing and variety are important in such a concert. “I’m definitely not going to play everything in chronological order. I think there should be a variety of tempo and character, and so I’m working now to arrange Joplin’s 53 works into an attractive order that will provide a satisfying listening experience for the audience.” Dowling’s agent in New York is currently booking single and double all-Joplin recitals for him on concert series and at music festivals throughout the country next year.
– A Permanent Document –
Last summer Dowling recorded the complete works for Rivermont Records with Bryan Wright himself as recording engineer and producer. They are currently in the process of editing and mastering the results which will be released as a multi-CD set this coming fall 2016 including a comprehensive liner notes booklet written by Dr. Wright. “Bryan and I want this recording to be definitive with a capital D. I performed on a magnificent Hamburg Steinway concert grand with a beautiful tone in a major American concert hall with superb acoustics. And I played the pieces as written, without improvisational flourishes. Recordings are permanent documents, and we believe that listeners should be able to hear Joplin as Joplin composed his music.”
Not improvising doesn’t mean not bringing out the expressiveness of the music however. “In live performances of Ragtime, ‘coloring outside the lines’ is encouraged and I myself certainly enjoy adding tasteful improvisations as other pianists do. In recording Joplin however I felt his works should not be embellished. I strove to make my performances of the written music as authentic and expressive as possible.
“My goal was to reveal Joplin’s sophisticated use of inner voice leadings and bass line progressions, to delineate his phrasing, to balance melody and accompaniment appropriately, to observe his dynamics, accents, and other indications, and above all, to use the Hamburg Steinway’s exquisite tone to give Joplin’s works the polished luster they deserve…all the expressive things we strive for in classical music that allow the music to engage our emotions to the fullest extent and to speak to our hearts. I wanted to bring out Joplin’s essence as a composer.”
Richard Dowling, with his dedication, passion, and virtuosity, brings Scott Joplin fully and rightfully into the company of Schubert, Beethoven, and Chopin with his historic concerts and recordings. Somewhere, I sense his piano teacher is smiling. I know I sure am.