The Centennial Concert
I have attended three historically significant events at Carnegie Hall. The first two were in 1988: on January 16, the re-creation of Benny Goodman’s famous concert, the first time non-symphonic music was performed at Carnegie, exactly 50 years earlier; and May 11, the 100th birthday party for Irving Berlin. Irving was a no-show that night (but was alive—he died at 101), but some of the music world luminaries who performed in his honor included Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney—well, you get the idea.
The third event was Saturday, April 1, the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death. For the first time in history, pianist and Steinway Artist Richard Dowling performed all 53 of Joplin’s piano works, in two concerts, in the afternoon and evening. Okay, these concerts were not in the main 2800-seat hall (Stern Auditorium) where the other two were; they were in the beautiful and more intimate 268-seat Weill Recital Hall, which has perfect unamplified acoustics and a New York Steinway concert grand piano on stage. I had only seen Richard perform at ragtime festivals, although he is classically trained. That training certainly came to the fore in these concerts. He has such a powerful, commanding presence on the keyboard, with superb technical skills. His performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” on a rickety upright at the Central PA Ragtime Festival in 2015 was the best I have ever heard anybody play it.
Richard recorded all the Joplin piano works on a magnificent Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano for a beautifully produced 3-CD set for the Rivermont Records label, owned by Bryan Wright. The set also includes a gorgeous 72-page full-color liner notes booklet. Talk about just in time delivery—the CDs arrived from the pressing plant just the previous morning at Richard’s apartment. Besides the new Complete Joplin CD set, Richard also had a 40-page limited edition commemorative Joplin Centennial souvenir book for sale at the concerts, which I bought.
The book contains remarks by Joplin scholars and devotees Ed Berlin (he’s written the definitive Joplin biography), Brian Holland (music director of the Joplin festival in Sedalia, MO, where the “Maple Leaf Rag” was composed), Max Morath (who revived ragtime in the ’60s), Terry Waldo (author of “This Is Ragtime”), Bryan, and Richard himself. I am honored to know or have met all these gentlemen. Terry and Bryan were both in the audience at Carnegie, as were other “celebrity” ragtime pianists Bill Edwards, Sue Keller, Martin Spitznagel, Dalton Ridenhour, and John Davis. Also in attendance was “ragtime royalty” Patricia Lamb Conn, daughter of composer Joseph F. Lamb. (Richard performed Lamb’s rag “Sensation,” as arranged by Joplin.) There may have been a few other ragtime celebrities whom I didn’t recognize. The love and respect these people, as well as the audience, have for Richard was clearly evident.
Ragtime is actually not my favorite genre of American popular music. I do enjoy it but don’t know as much about it as I do about ’20s and ’30s jazz and swing. Of the 53 works, I was familiar with maybe half a dozen, and had heard about twenty of the others.
I will not attempt here to describe or offer a critique of the individual numbers. But suffice to say, Richard received standing ovations at the end of all four halves of the two recitals. It’s enough to say that Richard played them flawlessly, and when you get the CDs you will be able to play critic yourself and decide which are your favorites. He played all 3-1/2 hours of Joplin’s piano repertory from memory, a formidable task when you consider that even a knowledgeable Joplin aficionado might have trouble keeping them apart.
The program was arranged to provide variety in tempos, yet Richard by design remained faithful to Joplin’s admonition, written on many of his pieces, not to play them fast. “It is never right to play ragtime fast,” Joplin wrote. Still, Joplin was not entirely specific on the tempos he wished his works to be played. In Richard’s commentary in the souvenir book, he noted that the tempo markings are “not fast” or “slow march tempo.” Richard, and Max Morath too, have wondered: fast (or slow), relative to what?
In addition, Richard did not play the pieces in chronological order, but instead arranged them in groups of (mostly) three or four. Except for one piece—“The (Great) Crush Collision March” —Richard played all the repeats that Joplin inserted into his compositions. “One train wreck is enough,” he remarked jokingly just before playing this work, which opened the evening concert.
An encore—“A Real Slow Drag” from Treemonisha was listed at the end of the second program so that, as Richard told us, we wouldn’t leave after he left the stage following the last set. Not a chance, Richard!