Pianist Dowling sparks a lively evening of ragtime

By David Fleshler

Richard Dowling performed a program of ragtime music Thursday night at St. Martha's Church in Miami Shores.

In a white suit, bow tie and boater, the pianist Richard Dowling bounded onstage at St. Martha’s Church in Miami Shores Thursday night for a high-energy concert of ragtime.

The retro-theatrical concert dress seemed right for this recital of works from the America of a century ago, laced by Dowling with facts from the history of ragtime. This weekend’s concerts are being presented by Seraphic Fire.

Popularized in the brothels and saloons of Sedalia, Missouri, and probably deriving its name from the characteristic “ragged” syncopated rhythms, ragtime accounted for the first work of any kind to sell one million copies of sheet music, with Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.

Scott Joplin

Like many aficionados of baby-boomer or younger status, the classically trained Dowling first encountered ragtime in the 1973 movie The Sting, a story of Depression-era grifters backed by a soundtrack of Joplin works arranged by Marvin Hamlisch. He persuaded his mother to buy him a complete set of Joplin sheet music and learned the works on his own.

Dowling played familiar works such as Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer with a thumping emphasis that brought out the music’s earthy energy. Although the pianist clearly has a tremendous technique—as demonstrated in a few showy non-ragtime works toward the end of the program—he also played more wrong notes than he likely would have in a straight classical recital.

In his first two or three selections at Thursday’s recital, Dowling appeared to be one of those musicians who plays best at full throttle, with the volume high and the tempo frantic. His performance of Joplin’s early Original Rags, a slower and quieter work than many of the ones that followed, came off as tentative and too casual, without the super-articulated touch he would show later. Or maybe he just needed to warm up, because the rest of the program was performed to a higher standard.

Despite the sheer pleasure he obviously takes in performing these works, he takes this music seriously. He compared Joplin’s 1905 waltz Bethena to Schubert, and as he performed it, there seemed a discernible trace of Schubert in the work’s gently syncopated melody, reminiscent of the second theme of the Unfinished Symphony. And he compared Joplin’s Solace, a work featured in The Sting, to Mozart, playing its yearning, melancholy melodies with a delicate but assured touch, showing that ragtime has a wider range of colors and moods than most casual listeners may realize.

As an encore, Dowling offered a straight classical selection, giving an expert and immaculate account of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major Op. 9 No. 2 – or so it seemed. Suddenly in the middle of the piece, he launched into a set of variations on Chopin, with the heavy bass line and syncopated rhythms of ragtime, bringing the concert to a fortissimo close, hitting the keyboard with such force that the Yamaha grand piano skidded to the side.

The program will repeat 7:30 pm. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables, 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church. Call 305-285-9060 or go to www.seraphicfire.org.

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Fri Aug 27, 2010
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