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The Boston Globe

January 31, 1987



On Ch. 2, ragtime in all its glory


By Richard Dyer

Globe Staff


    One hot evening last July the cameras of Maryland Public Television caught Gunther Schuller and the New England Ragtime Ensemble in action at the Wolf Trap festival.  Tonight at 10, the simulcast program airs on WGBH-TV, Ch. 2.

     The music is one of the glories of our American heritage.  The arrangements in which ragtime is still most often heard proclaim their own period; the music itself never dates.  These twelve wonderful pieces by Scott Joplin, James Scott, Arthur Marshall, James Europe, Zez Confrey and Jelly Roll Morton make you want to tap your toes, snap your fingers, get on your feet and move.  The Wolf Trap audience canít help bursting into the music with applause for the performers; itís also a release of pure pleasure.

    Schuller, snappy in a green jacket and purple bow tie, introduces most of the pieces in an informal and informative way, explaining that ragtime was a kind of Missouri fusion music, combining syncopatic rhythmic melodies of African origin and the steady left-hand harmonic accompaniment.  He gives brief biographical data about the composers and speaks about the relationship of the music to the Sousa pieces that marched before, and to the jazz that came along next.  Best of all, he knows how much talking is enough, and lets the music take over.

     The performances are as spiffy as everyone in this area would expect. Schuller has frequently said that ragtime music sounds deceptively easy to perform.  When he guest-conducts symphony orchestras, he is often asked to bring some ragtime along, but the players find it almost impossible to get right.  The Ragtime Ensemble knows just what to do. They play the rags like the superb chamber music it is.  And they swing.