Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
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THE SUNDAY STAR-LEDGER

January 25, 1987

 

 

CRITIC AT LARGE

 

Wolf Trap series to air ragtime

 

By BYRON BELT

 

     Public television will offer one of the season’s happiest, foot-stompingest hours Wednesday at 10 p.m. when “New England Ragtime Ensemble on Stage at Wolf Trap” gives audiences a chance to smile and toe-tap to the music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and others.

     The second of this season’s “On Stage at Wolf Trap” productions, the show was filmed live at Virginia’s Wolf Trap Farm Park, the nation’s only national park devoted to the performing arts.  Last summer’s audience clearly loved every moment of the concert, and so should TV viewers.

      Composer-conductor Gunther Schuller sparked the 1970s popular ragtime revival when he established the New England Ragtime Ensemble to bring to life the composed music of Joplin’s “Red Back Book,” manuscripts uncovered by musicologist Vera Lawrence.  The EMI-Angel 1973 recording of “Red Back Book” won a Grammy Award and became the label’s best-selling record.

      Schuller began his professional life as a French horn player, first with the Cincinnati Symphony and then for nearly 15 years as a solo horn with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

      Composition has dominated Schuller’s career, but he has played major roles in musical education in America as head of both the New England Conservatory of Music and The Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where he served from 1970 to 1984.  Maestro Schuller currently teaches, conducts and directs the lively new Festival at Sandpoint, Utah.

      It was Schuller’s lifelong interest in jazz that led to his determination to restore the popularity of ragtime, an 1890s forerunner of jazz.

     The black itinerant pianist Joplin is generally credited with the birth and popularity of ragtime.  He gradually moved from playing in honky-tonks and bordellos into the white musical establishment through the written rags published in the “Red Back Book.” The composer’s interest in classical music led to the composition of the first opera by a black composer, “Treemonisha,” which was reconstructed by Vera Lawrence and Schuller and produced first at Wolf Trap and then on Broadway.

      The quixotic ragginess of the rhythms gave ragtime its name, and it was the national popular dance music until about the time of World War I.

      Turn-of-the-century arts are increasingly in vogue today, as witnessed by art exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum and elsewhere, and in this first major TV exposure of some of the most delightful music of our national heritage.

     Once Schuller and his young new England Conservatory musicians had recorded Joplin’s best rags ion the composer’s own orchestrations, it was only a small step for “The Entertainer” to be featured in the ragtime score for the popular movie”The Sting.”

     On this week’s show, the music itself is the star attraction, including such other Joplin works as “Maple Leaf Rag,” Original Rags” and others; two smashing Jelly Roll Morton classics, “Smokehouse Blues” and “Grandpa’s Spells,” and Schuller’s dazzling, delightful orchestration of Zez Confrey’s bright piano piece, “Dizzy Fingers.”

      By the time “The Entertainer” closes the show, viewers will have learned a bit of musical history through Schuller’s relaxed commentary and the orchestra’s magical performances.

     The New England Ragtime Ensemble show will be hard to match, but the remaining three productions of the “On Stage at Wolf Trap series are aimed at pleasing a wide audience as well.  Upcoming programs include the wit and melodies of England’s virtuoso entertainers, The King’s Singers.

      Cabaret singer Karen Akers will include a tribute to her vocal idol Edith Piaf, and the series is completed with a special tribute by the National Symphony Orchestra marking the 50th anniversary of the death of the incomparable George Gershwin.

      Next season, public television would do well to present “Paul Whiteman’s Historic Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924" as reconstructed by conductor Maurice Peress, a wild and rich concert.