Pianist Dowling brings classical finesse to ragtime

By David Fleshler

Take an old-time saloon pianist and give him a classical virtuoso’s chops and you’ll have a fair idea of what it’s like to attend a performance by Richard Dowling.

 The young pianist played an exuberant concert of ragtime and Gershwin Thursday night, taking a form that had originated in the brothels and saloons of New Orleans and St. Louis and transferring it to the nave of St. Martha’s in the Shores church on Biscayne Boulevard. The concert was presented by the choir Seraphic Fire, although the choir did not perform.

 Dowling, who has recorded works of Gershwin, Chopin and various ragtime composers, plays with the informality of a man performing for a group of friends gathered around the piano. Although he has a blazing technique, his touch wasn’t particularly careful or measured, as he brought out the clanking energy of works like Robert Hampton’s Cataract Rag and Euday L. Bowman’s 12th Street Rag. In Ragtime Nightingale by Joseph F. Lamb,whom he described as the Chopin of ragtime (Joplin was the Beethoven, he said) he played with dreamy soulfulness, lingering over a figure in the left hand that – as he pointed out – sounded like a slowed-up version of the thundering left-hand arpeggios of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.

 Dowling provided a brief history of ragtime, noting that the sheet music for Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was the first to sell a million copies, besting anything by Beethoven, Brahms or Chopin. He explained the use of syncopation—a rhythmic device in which the beat falls in the middle of the note rather than at the beginning. To demonstrate he played a few bars of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer without the syncopation, and it sounded deader and duller than the dreariest etude.

 Dowling’s musical manner is similar to that of Seraphic Fire’s artistic director, Patrick Dupre Quigley, a scholar as much as a performer, who can mine obscure corners of the musical past for works to bring to life before an audience. As an encore, for example, Dowling performed a work of Gershwin that he assured members of the audience they had never heard before—Meadow Serenade, an unpublished song that the composer had cut from the 1927 musical Strike Up the Band.

 He ended with an arrangement for solo piano of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Dowling played brilliantly, missing only a few of the work’s thousands of notes. But missing the sounds of the orchestra of the original—the clarinet and violins and trumpets—the music sounded diminished, particularly compared to the ragtime works that made such imaginative use of the piano’s resources.

 The concert will be repeated tonight at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, Saturday at 8 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Miami Beach Community Church. Call 305-285-9060 or go to www.seraphicfiretickets.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Pianist Dowling brings classical finesse to ragtime”

  1. Posted Aug 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm by Dan the Music Master

    Dowling is a remarkably diverse and resourceful musician.

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Fri Aug 28, 2009
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