Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Times of San Diego: A Life In Music: World Premiere of ‘Scott Joplin’s New Rag’

Scott Joplin (c.1867-1917) was an African American Composer and Pianist of Ragtime and Classical Music who wrote three operas and is featured at 

Robert Barry Fleming

October 7, 2014
By Pat Launer

Talk about your ambitious projects! Robert Barry Fleming wrote the play, “Scott Joplin’s New Rag,” and plays all the characters — not only talking almost nonstop for 70 minutes, but singing (a bit), dancing (impressively — including moonwalks and hip hop moves), reciting rap poetry and playing piano: and not just simple tunes; the complex, syncopated rhythms of ragtime.

As can be expected from such a mammoth undertaking, it doesn’t wholly succeed. There’s just too much of everything. Long piano pieces (and while Fleming is good, he isn’t concert-level). A significant amount of time-hopping (with little explanatory assistance). Overlapping slides and projections that can become unintelligible. And just too many ‘high concepts’ — like the hip hop link. Or the fact that this whole proceeding might be the fever-dream of a man in the throes of death, wracked by syphilitic dementia.

There’s considerably more telling than showing or enacting. Some of the text is in the third person (quotes from others, newspaper reports). The sum total is that we never get to connect or sympathize with the man who was dubbed “the king of ragtime.”

We do learn that the long-forgotten but recently re-discovered African American composer grew up in Texarkana (born 1868 or thereabouts), and later moved to Missouri. He began publishing music in 1895, and his “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) brought him considerable fame. That piece provided a steady income for life, though Joplin never reached that level of success again, and frequently suffered from financial (and other) problems. He attempted to go beyond the limitations of the musical form that made him famous, without much monetary (or personal) success. He was confined to a mental institution in 1917, and died there at the age of 49. His death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format.

But in the early 1970s, with the release of the Academy Award–winning movie, “The Sting,” that featured several of his compositions, most memorably, “The Entertainer,” Joplin’s music had a major resurgence. His opera, “Treemonisha,”partially and unsuccessfully produced in his lifetime, was finally mounted to wide acclaim in 1972. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

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