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

Live review – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Roaring 20s: Decade of Melody & Mayhem

Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Blake (arr. Schuller) Charleston Rag (1915)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Morton (arr. Schuller) Black Bottom Stomp (1926)
Krenek (arr. Bauer) Fantasie on ‘Jonny spielt auf’ (1927/8)
Milhaud Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58b (1920/1)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded 9-10 November, broadcast Thursday 31 December 2020 (online)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra certainly saw in the New Year with style in this attractive and enterprising programme centred on the prevalence but also the range of jazz idioms either side of the Atlantic throughout the 1920s. Its stylistic roots were acknowledged in the panache of Charleston Rag by the long-lived Eubie Blake, then the irresistible verve of Black Bottom Stomp by the lived-dangerously Jelly Roll Morton – both heard in distinctive arrangements by Gunther Schuller, whose own jazz innovations warrant revival as his centenary approaches.

Between these pieces, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a reminder of this composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s early chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston – its moody violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz – and Tango admit of an introspection and pathos to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are here side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

It is almost 94 years since Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf took the German-speaking world by storm, and though its highly Viennese take on jazz lacks the satirical edge as achieved by Weill, the present Fantasie devised by Emil Bauer gives a fine overview of this opera in all its attendant strengths and weaknesses. Abetted by diaphanous orchestration (with its oddly hymnic role for harmonium), the slower sections conjure no mean expressive fervour, while the closing pages exude an affirmation which never feels brittle or forced in its demeanour.

Darius Milhaud had also fastened on to the exuberance of jazz, here with Brazilian overtones, in his ballet Le boeuf sur le toit – as heard in the rarely revived ‘cinéma-fantaisie’ version for violin and orchestra. Perhaps the often equivocal nature of the solo part has mitigated against wider acceptance, but Zoë Beyers took its technical demands confidently in her stride while remaining aware of its ‘first among equals’ status – notwithstanding the strategically placed cadenza (by no less than Arthur Honegger) that brings the soloist unashamedly centre-stage. Credit, too, to the members of the ESO (suitably attired throughout) for having rendered this music’s teasing rhythmic inflections with unfailing poise, and to Kenneth Woods for teasing the maximum finesse from out of Milhaud’s entertaining while not a little provocative score.

It was, indeed, a fine showing all round and would have been ideal before that ‘end of year’ party which circumstances have regrettably made impossible. This event was still a highly positive means of seeing out the old year and welcoming in a much to be anticipated 2021.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Thursday 31 December 2020 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here