Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'Scott Joplin Treemonisha' is Stereophile Recording of the Month of August 2012
Recording of the Month
Recording of August 2012: Joplin: Treemonisha
  Jul 25, 2012
Joplin: Treemonisha
Anita Johnson, soprano; AnnMarie Sandy, mezzo-soprano; Chauncey Packer, Robert Mack, tenors; Edward Pleasant, high baritone; Darren Stokes, Frank Ward Jr., basses; others; Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers, Rick Benjamin
New World 80720-2 (2 CDs). 2012. Judith Sherman, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 99:06
Performance ****
Sonics *****
The great ragtime composer Scott Joplin had grander ambitions than just the magnificent miniatures for piano he's famous for. When he died, in 1917, he had spent much of the previous 10 years polishing and campaigning for his full-length opera, Treemonisha, the piano-vocal score for which he had published in 1911. Joplin had studied classical composition and notation with a German scholar who had happened to settle in his hometown of Texarkana, Arkansas; lore has it that Julius Weiss gave young Joplin lessons in exchange for Mrs. Joplin's services as a laundress. Treemonisha is through-composed, with sophisticated harmonies clearly influenced by European teachings, but it also incorporates early-jazz beats, proto-blues sounds, odd syncopations, occasional Victorian-type ballads, African-American folk and pop music, and moments that recall field hollers and revival meetings—in short, all of the music of the Black experience in America is represented. The amalgam is strange, wonderful, and vastly entertaining. Treemonisha is also the only extant opera concerned with the post–Civil War African-American experience written by someone who had experienced it firsthand. Joplin also wrote the libretto, which is stunningly naãve; the opera will never be confused with a masterpiece (it's no Boris Godunov or Don Giovanni), but it's an instant pleasure, and the more one listens, the richer it gets. And as a historical document, it's crucial.

This is not Treemonisha's first recording. In 1975, Gunther Schuller orchestrated the work Ö la grand opera, and it was presented at the Houston Grand Opera to great critical acclaim; indeed, I still love that recording, which Schuller conducted. But on this new set, conductor and scholar Rick Benjamin has attempted to perform the opera as it would have been heard 100 years ago, using what was then colloquially known as "eleven + pno": flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, two cornets (in place of trumpets), trombone, violin, viola, cello, double bass, period percussion, and piano. (Schuller used a banjo as well; Benjamin does not, arguing that Joplin would not have wanted anything so closely related to the minstrel tradition.) This does wonders for the work: where Schuller gave us big, rockin' effects, Benjamin offers transparency that allows Joplin's tunes to emerge, and makes the recitatives (there is no spoken dialogue) less stilted and more human. 

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