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CLASSICAL  November 2009

CLASSICAL November 2009

Subject:

New Rags

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 6 Nov 2009 17:13:24 -0800

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text/plain

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[You can read this review online at:

   http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/m/msr01238b.php

 -Dave]

Judith Lang Zaimont
Prestidigitations: Contemporary Concert Rags

*  Bubble-Up Rag
*  Judy's Rag
*  Lazy Beguine
*  Hesitation Rag
*  Snazzy Sonata
*  Reflective Rag
*  Serenade

Elizabeth Ann Owens, flute
Nanette Kaplan Solomon, piano
Joanne Polk, piano
Doris Lang Kosloff, piano
Judith Lang Zaimont, piano
The American Ragtime Ensemble/David Reffkin
MSR Classics MS1238 57:35 2007

Summary for the Busy Executive: Serious, but far from somber.

The end of the ragtime era pretty much coincided with the conclusion of
the First World War.  Rag became jazz, and jazz didn't really look back.
Ragtime composers either died off, like Scott Joplin, or, like Eubie
Blake, accommodated themselves to new styles and genres.  When I was a
lad, ragtime was really a kind of "novelty" music - performers like Crazy
Otto and "Big Tiny" Little, wearing bowler hats and garters on their
sleeves and chomping on cigars in a Disneyfication of a complex past.
The idea apparently was to play the music as fast and as machine-like
as possible.  However, in the Fifties, a truer picture of the era began
to emerge with Blesh and Janis' trailblazing They All Played Ragtime and
with elegant entertainers like Max Morath.  However, in the Sixties,
this newer look at ragtime entered further into the mainstream.  Joshua
Rifkin's Joplin albums and later Gunther Schuller and the New England
Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble's rendition of "The Red Back Book" became
crossover hits of the time, and, of course, Marvin Hamlisch's monster
score for The Sting made the cash registers syncopate "Hallelujah." It's
hard to think of any of this as controversial, but Rifkin in particular
found himself on the receiving end of sourpuss critics who accused him
of playing Joplin like Chopin.  Rifkin's response was, essentially, "But
of course." Rifkin reminded us of the subtlety of Joplin (and Lamb and
Turpin), incompatible with the Shakey's Pizza Parlor atmosphere that had
accreted onto the music - in effect, slathering an already-beautiful
girl in hooker make-up - and his view eventually won out.

The interest of classical composers in ragtime paralleled popular interest.
Debussy's "Golliwog Cakewalk" stakes out the beginning.  Stravinsky's
"Ragtime" and L'Histoire du Soldat, Milhaud's Rag-Caprices, and numerous
little pieces by composers like Hindemith, Schulhoff, and Martin=F9 mark,
really, the end of the interest for a number of decades.  When William
Bolcom showed his rags to his teacher, Darius Milhaud, Milhaud commented
on how old-fashioned they were.  However, the Sixties and Seventies saw
a rekindling of interest from such composers as Bolcom, William Albright,
and Judith Lang Zaimont.

One can see many different approaches in all this activity.  Somebody
like Stravinsky, for example, creates through the abstraction of stylistic
elements in the model, a music very close to what he already writes.
One can say the same of Milhaud and the rest of the Europeans.  In the
later ragtime revival, composers like Bolcom and Albright tended to keep
closer to traditional models, although with a more knowing structural
sophistication.  Zaimont's rags lie somewhere between Stravinsky and
Bolcom, though closer to Bolcom than to Stravinsky.  Zaimont had at least
heard rags before she began to compose them - unlike Stravinsky, by the
way.  That is, you can recognize these works as rags, but the harmonies
lie closer to Zaimont's straight-classical works, and in many cases the
pieces inhabit complicated psychological neighborhoods.  For example
"Bubble-Up Rag," the most elaborate on the program at nearly ten minutes,
not only uses ragtime elements but also here and there Ravel harmonies
and bits of American interwar neoclassicism within her own strong idiom.
"Reflective Rag" strikes a very deep note indeed, especially in the
composer's own solo performance.

I've got to rave about this disc for its material and its presentation.
All the music I find flat-out wonderful, over a wide emotional spectrum.
All the performers, first-rate, delve into the material, and all come
up with very individual interpretations.  One sees this most clearly,
of course, in the various arrangements of the same pieces - notably, the
"Reflective Rag" and "Lazy Beguine." I hear "Lazy Beguine," a deliberately
"light" piece, as less a beguine than a tango, attractive in much the
same way as Anderson's "Blue Tango." Light music is harder to bring off
than it sounds; it takes a real gift.  After all, not every composer can
write an immediately-attractive or memorable melody.  That particular
talent has little to do with musical quality, one way or the other,
although I don't sneer at a great melody when I hear one.  Beethoven,
after all, wrote few good tunes.  Mozart, on the other hand, seemed to
shake 'em out of his pockets.  Zaimont has the gift, although she can
do other things as well.  However, the three arrangements of "Reflective
Rag" shows us the most about Zaimont's range.  "Reflective Rag" strikes
me as the oldest in sensibility.  It evokes not the ragtime era, but
American modernism in the Forties - Copland, Gould, and Bernstein, for
example.  David Reffkin's small-group arrangement is attractively
straightforward, a tasteful watercolor of the original black-and-white
- Kansas to Oz, so to speak.  Zaimont's own arrangement for flute and
piano opens a window on greater emotion, while it seems to add a couple
of contrapuntal lines here and there.  However, the piano original walks
through the door, from Oz back to Kansas.  It turns out Kansas was where
you wanted to be all along.  For me, it plumbs Chopin-like depths of
feeling, especially with the composer at the piano.  Rhythmically, she
pulls and pushes the line, without stepping in a pile of schmaltz, and
the music, it so happens, not only can take it, but blossoms into beauty.
"Judy's Rag," its somewhat zany but no-less deep companion, reminds me
of a Chopin scherzo, as it capers and skitters about.  Would these pieces
have sung in this way without the influence of Morath, Rifkin, and
Schuller?  I have no idea, but it's intriguing to consider.

The two most artistically ambitious pieces on the program, "Hesitation
Rag" and "Serenade," stretch the vernacular as far as it can go.
"Hesitation Rag" uses ragtime tropes in much the same way Barber uses
boogie-woogie in the first of his Excursions.  The figures become almost
beside the point, which is yearning and reflection.  "Serenade" goes
even further.  In fact, I'd say Zaimont breaks the connection to rag and
the ragtime era altogether, while retaining a jazz or even pop quality
within a very serious piece indeed.  "Serenade" and "Reflective Rag" are
my two favorites on the disc.

A younger Judith Lang Zaimont had a piano act with her sister, Doris
Lang Kosloff.  They played on the radio, back when radio was far more
diverse in its musical programming, released at least one LP that I know
about (it included the Poulenc 2-piano sonata, I believe), and - probably
their show-biz highpoint - appeared on TV with Mitch Miller and the
Sing-along Gang (my dry cleaner's brother sang tenor with the group).
Snazzy Sonata, for two pianos, was written with the musical tastes of
the Lang Sisters' father in mind.  It consists of four movements:
"Moderato: Two-Step"; "Lazy Beguine"; "Bebop Scherzo"; "Grande Valse
Brillante." The "Two-Step" of course takes us back to ragtime.  The
"Bebop Scherzo" is tamer than real bebop, but it has the same frenetic
energy, and it contains a nice musical joke. The "Valse" changes phrase
lengths so much, it may not even keep to three-quarter time.  Again,
Zaimont puts in little jokes, especially as the valse keeps threatening
to break out into "A Bicycle Built for Two." Above all, the piece justifies
Zaimont's designation of "An Entertainment."

Again, the performers do really fine jobs.  I was particularly struck
by the different pianists.  Zaimont, as befits the professional pianist
who wrote these works, wrings the most from of her solos.  On the other
hand, Joanne Polk, Nanette Kaplan Solomon, and Doris Kosloff possess
more ringing tones.  Polk meets the significant challenge of the "Hesitation
Rag," spinning out a great sound and alert to the emotional nuances of
the piece - a very elegant reading.  David Reffkin contributes clear and
refined arrangements, and his American Ragtime Ensemble plays delicately
and with taste.  I don't slight flutist Immanuel Davis if I give the
edge to Elizabeth Ann Owens.  Then again, she has the advantage of the
composer accompanying her.  Whatever their merit as rags, I prefer
Zaimont's to Bolcom's as music.  This may well end up as one of my best
discs of the year.

Steve Schwartz

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