In concert – ESO Digital Black History Concert – The Art of the Rag


English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Joplin (arr. Schuller) Maple Leaf Rag (1899)
(arr. Schuller) Castle House Rag (1914)
(arr. Schuller) Charleston Rag (1917)
 Black Bottom Stomp (1925)
(arr. Schuller) The Entertainer (1902)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on November 10th, 2020
First broadcast on October 28th, 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although recorded just over a year ago, the English Symphony Orchestra’s Art of the Rag made an ideal contribution to the most recent Black History Month – focussing on music by four of the most influential practitioners of the dance-form that became known as Ragtime.

He might not actually have attained his 100th birthday, but Eubie Blake remains among the most versatile of those composers who straddled the (apparent) divide between ragtime and jazz – Charleston Rag typical in its harmonic sideslips and rhythmic syncopation confidently rendered here. His contribution to the promoting of Black musicians, furthering the American war-effort, and creating specifically African-American music has overshadowed James Reese Europe’s compositions – Castle House Rag conveying an ambivalent jollity which was surely intended. Because he lived long enough to perform and record extensively, Jelly Roll Morton has no equals in evolving a jazz idiom – Black Bottom Stomp effectively codifying what was merely a dance craze into a musical template which was to have far-reaching consequences.

Framing these items were the two most popular rags by Scott Joplin. Among his earliest such pieces, Maple Leaf Rag was a success immediately on publication, while The Entertainer had chalked up a plethora of arrangements even before the ragtime revival of the early 1970s, but neither secured financial success for their hapless composer. They certainly responded well to dextrous and attentive playing from the ESO, ably directed by Kenneth Woods and given the benefit – as were most of these pieces – of stylish arrangements by the late Gunther Schuller.

An enterprising selection such as more than fulfilled its purpose in promoting music whose familiarity need not detract from its innovative qualities. Perhaps the ESO could yet mount    a concert or even a staged presentation of Joplin’s magnum opus – the opera Treemonisha?

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website

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